The Sequel of Shannara

by Arthur B

The Elfstones of Shannara finds Terry Brooks continuing to fill a very specific niche in Arthur's driving routine.
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Decades have passed since the fall of the Warlock Lord; Will Ohmsford, grandson of Shea, is training under the friendly Gnomes of Storlock to become a healer, when from out of the depths of history steps Allanon, aged not a whit since the events of The Sword of Shannara, to bestow another quest of world-shattering importance.

You see, off in the Westland ruled by the Elves there is a magical tree called the Ellcrys. Before nuclear armageddon wrought a New World from the ashes of the Old, before even the Old World’s own history came to pass, the elves were benign spiritual entities oriented towards life and preservation of the land. They fought a terrible war against the demons, spiritual entities of chaos and hatred and destruction, and eventually won it through establishing the Forbidding - a mystical banishment of the demons to another dimension, accomplished and sustained by a magical tree called the Ellcrys.

During the era of the Old World, the elves existed off in the wilderness, and being spiritual entities were difficult to discover even there. When the New World arose from the ashes, the elves realised that they would have to manifest more obviously and directly in order to lend a hand to the various offshoots of humanity. Thus, they took on something of the aspects of humanity itself, no longer being the transcendent beings of spirit they once were and becoming more like the elves we are familiar with in the Shannara series. In the process of doing this, much has been forgotten - so now that the Ellcrys seems to be dying, the elves are at a loss for what to do.

Between the elves’ own research of their books of ancient lore and Allanon’s researches in the archives of the Druids, a plan has been formulated. For the Ellcrys to be revived, one of its seeds must be taken to a sanctuary known as Safehold, where it must be bathed in the Bloodfire and returned to the Ellcrys so that it can be given new life. But only one of the Chosen of the Ellcrys, the attendants of the tree selected by the Ellcrys herself, can do this - and because the Forbidding has weakened, some demons (led by the Dagda Mor, whose magic rivals even Allanon’s) have broken through and massacred all the currently active Chosen.

There is, however, one Chosen left - Amberle Elessedil, granddaughter of the elven king Eventine, who fled her position as one of the Chosen for reasons she has never explained to anyone, causing great scandal. Allanon intends to persuade her to return to the Ellcrys, petition for the seed, and if the Ellcrys still recognises her as a Chosen carry the seed to Safehold and the Bloodfire - wherever that may be. Will’s own part of this is to carry the Elfstones that Allanon gave to Shea back in Sword and which Shea has passed on to Will in order to use their power to protect Amberle. But with demons chasing them all the way - and Allanon distracted helping the armies of the elves defend the Westland from the armies of demons that must come after them once the Forbidding fails - Will and Amberle’s quest will be incredibly dangerous, and Will’s own doubts about his ability to use the Elfstones won’t help…

This is another one I read back when I was a teenager and then listened to again as an audiobook whilst driving recently. Terry Brooks took some five or six years to come up with this sequel - including time spent writing most of a completely different story before scrapping everything and starting again at the suggestion of Lester del Rey - and his craft doesn’t seem to have had any sort of great leap forward but does seem to be more polished this time around. It’s still good audiobook fodder for driving because he still overexplains everything (which helps when I’m distracted by having to pay attention to some tricky driving), but at the same time it’s somewhat less irritating this time around; it’s less frequent for him to explaining the same idea multiple times in a single passage this time around, opting instead for regularly throwing in long passages of exposition giving a rundown of all the characters’ present concerns. (This makes it especially good for intermittent listening because if you’ve forgotten some stuff you’ll quickly get back up to speed.)

As with the previous book, more or less any particular major plot point will not come as a surprise. The truth about why Amberle became deathly afraid of the Ellcrys, and the true nature of what she must do to revive the tree, is telegraphed so strongly that when Will has a hissy fit at Allanon during the denouement it’s kind of difficult to have much sympathy for him. We’ve been given the same information he has and that’s enough to guess the twist several times over, after all; for him to claim surprise doesn’t make it look like he has been cynically manipulated by Allanon in this situation, it just makes him look like a chump who pretty much needed Allanon to hold his hand and tell him what to do because he clearly wasn’t on the ball enough to handle this himself.

One thing Brooks tries to do here is work in female characters of any significance whatsoever, after the near-solid mass of dudes which was the cast of Sword. Important women to the story include the Ellcrys herself, who apparently has to be a woman and has to be reinvigorated by a woman because only women can bring forth life, Amberle, who is involved in that whole Ellcrys thing intrinsically and is also a love interest for Will, the twin witches Mallenroh and Morag, who have been fighting a magical war for uncounted ages over a love triangle they were in with some dude, and Eretria, a sexy and adventurous woman that joins the adventuring party and is also a love interest for Will.

So, in short, Brooks seems here incapable of coming up with a significant female character who isn’t defined and motivated by their relationships with men and/or gender essentialist ideas about women being intrinsically nurturing. Eretria is especially problematic as a character because she is a Rover, a member of a nomadic culture which is basically a huge riff on every stereotype about Romany travellers going (and the fact that she and her people are frequently described as being dark-skinned, dark-haired sorts makes it clear that they are coded here as being a distinct race). In particular, they are depicted as being an untrustworthy band who are all total thieves and utterly dishonest with it. It’s almost like Brooks (like so many other American fantasy writers who decided to go to this particular well) either saw nothing wrong with running with a stereotypical depiction of an entire race or didn’t realise that Romany people are real in the first place and thought they were an invention of folklore.

Another thing about Eritrea is the way she’s used to push this weird take on sexuality Brooks has going here. Essentially, Will’s interactions with Amberle are written as being romantic but essentially asexual (fortunately, given how often Brooks hypes up how childlike Amberle is despite supposedly being an adult woman), whereas Eritrea is all sexually proactive and is out to bang Will and he’s all freaked out until the quest is done and being with Amberle is no longer really an option, at which point he seems to accept her as a sort of consolation prize. (Eritrea must feel so good about that.) Between this and the way Brooks talks about prostitutes in some wretched hive of scum and villainy offering up “false pleasure” (if the pleasure feels pleasurable how can it be false?) and the whole “witch twins in a love triangle” deal, Brooks seems to treat sex and romantic attraction like it’s this big old scary thing which at best becomes a regrettable part of adulthood once the transcendent ideals of childhood become lost.

Much of the war against the demons is narrated from the point of view of Ander, younger son of Eventine who ends up having to take the lead when Eventine is badly wounded and the Crown Prince is killed. It’s… well, it’s a little odd. For the most part, when it comes to Will and Amberle’s own encounters with demons, they fit the whole “spiritual entities having dire effects in the physical world” model quite nicely, with the Reaper in particular - their main hunter - stalking them through supernaturally-invoked daydreams as well as in the flesh. As far as the battle descriptions go, except when a particularly special demon comes on the scene you could do a find-and-replace to substitute “demon” for “orc” in most of the battle scenes and it’d still basically make sense.

This largely comes from a problem Brooks makes for himself; it is stated that whilst the elves became more humanlike rather than retaining their nature as creatures of pure spirit, the demons didn’t. This is quite a nice way of reconciling the backstory weirdness in Sword where supposedly the elves just popped up out of nowhere after the nuclear war, but it also makes the prospect of the elves having a proper fight with the demons seem like a huge stretch. Brooks solves this problem by largely ignoring it and writing the rank-and-file demons like they are just so much cannon fodder.

In style, Brooks seems to be moving away from riffing on Lord of the Rings and focuses more on riffing on Dungeons & Dragons, with Will and Amberle’s quest involving multiple dungeon crawls and party sizes more appropriate to a D&D game than the larger numbers that round out Tolkien’s Fellowship. The shift away from Tolkien is a big help when it comes to pacing; rather than trying to tell so many stories that the tale becomes absolutely interminable, Brooks picks out a reasonable set of different plot threads to handle and, when you allow for the overexplaining, doesn’t allow them to outstay their welcome.

Basically, it's more of the same with some bits improved (the front cover even illustrates a scene which I think actually happens in the book this time!) and some new mistakes made, cementing Brooks' status as king of microwave popcorn fantasy.
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Comments (go to latest)
Adrienne at 21:06 on 2016-06-16
I gotta say, Arthur, it boggles my mind that you can tolerate fucking Shannara but you hated Fionavar. :)
Arthur B at 22:42 on 2016-06-16
I think it's because I have low expectations of Shannara and it meets them solidly, whilst with Fionavar I keep getting frustrated by how good it could be if it didn't keep doing stuff that annoyed me.
Adrienne at 07:40 on 2016-06-19
Hah, fair enough. Read later Kay, maybe?
Robinson L at 18:02 on 2016-10-01
I gotta say, the set up this time around sounds a lot more original and potentially interesting than the premise of the first book. Not devastatingly new, but like something which could make for a decently entertaining fantasy adventure.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and guess that restoring the Ellcrys requires either sacrificing the Chosen or the Chosen merging with the Ellcrys/transforming into the new Ellcrys. Brooks didn't lend his name to the predictability rating scale for nothing. Am I close?
Arthur B at 14:52 on 2016-10-02
It's the transformation option.
Cheriola at 00:30 on 2017-08-10
I have watched the TV series based on this book now, and it's... actually surprisingly good?

Especially the female characters and their relationship with with Will seems to have been reworked to something much more positive and attractive to a female audience:
1. Amberle, Will, and Eretria are all young adults of about the same age, and no-one comes across as "child-like". Except maybe Will a little, due to growing up fairly isolated, he comes across rather clueless and unworldly in the beginning. Amberle has an elven boyfriend at the start of the show, just to make clear that she's not some sort of virgin Madonna symbol.
2. Eretria uses seduction to manipulate people, but it comes across more like a well-honed survival tactic, not like she actually means to go through with it. (E.g. shortly after meeting Will, she starts seducing him, but only to get his clothes off so she can steal the elf-stones. Once he's naked, she drugs him with a sleeping potion.) And when she describes Rover's habitual promiscuity, it seems like she's just exaggerating to shock Amberle. As far as I remember, the only instances of sex coming up are in the context of romance. There are no prostitutes.
3. The girls are much more competend fighters than Will is, which leads to the impression that the story is really Amberle's hero's journey, with Will having the usually female role of moral support (he's surprisingly kind and gentle for a young male character) with a magic superpower that's only useful in very specific circumstances. Most threatening situations that don't involve actual demons, he's the one needing protection. Also, don't know if this was in the book, but in the TV show, Eretria turns out to be just as destined to participate in the recreation of the Ellcrys as Amberle is, making it not feel like she's a third wheel. Rather, Will is the one team member who seems kind of surplus to the mission, if they didn't need him to operate the elf-stones.
4. There's a love triangle between the 3 protagonists, but eventually the girls bury most of their jealousy (and class-based animosity) and start to bond and maybe even develop an interest in each other, if you squint. When Amberle first seems lost to them, Eretria cries. And because the show spends a lot of time giving characterization to the girls, in the end it feels almost like Will is the prize (i.e. object) they're somewhat childishly squabbling about, until they get their act together in the end and do their duty for the good of the world. (Which involves giving up Will.)
5. I don't remember any twin witches.
6. I don't remember it ever being specified that only a woman can revive the Ellcrys. In fact, Amberle has to sneak into the competition for new candidates for the Chosen, since women aren't traditionally allowed. And she definetely doesn't know that she will have to sacrifice herself. She runs away from her duties in the beginning because she has visions of killing one of her fellow Chosen.
7. Will is played by an actor who looks like he belongs in a boy band, all slender and with long-ish hair, which just makes the whole show look even more like the main intended audience is supposed to be female. I distinctly remember thinking "It's nice they've hired someone who makes good eye-candy. But I cannot imagine any straight young man wanting to identify with this character. Turning off most of the standard audience for this genre seems kind of a bold move for this show."
8. From the way they were depicted in the show, I didn't make the connection between the Rovers and Romani at all. They seemed more like the typical scavanger gangs you get in post-apocalyptic movies like Mad Max. And they were not Eretria's family - just guys who bought her as a slave and raised her with lots of emotional abuse - and whom she desperately wants to get away from. (The Romani stereotype involves close-nit family ties.)
9. In the end of the first season, Will loses both Amberle and Eretria, because Eretria does the whole "You shall not pass!" heroic sacrifice to buy Amberle time to get back home. In the last scenes, Will starts trekking back to go save her, even though others tell him it's probably pointless to try. And he has a desperate breakdown when she almost dies during the Bloodfire ceremony earlier. So if they get together in the next season, it will feel less like he's just 'settling' for her because Amberle isn't in the picture anymore. If anything it would feel like they're both going on as best as they can after one corner of their triad just died.


Also, the production values aren't as low as I was expecting, after all. The few CGI monsters are noticably made by the same team that made The Lord of the Ring movies, and those movie productions have clearly left New Zealand with a lot of competetend stunt coordinators and extras who can do a decent battle scene. Shame only that the TV show couldn't afford to hire more than two dozen people for its 'epic' climactic war.

The show also goes out of its way to make Allanon seem something other than a Gandalf-expy. Primarily by hiring burly, half-Maori Manu Bennett for the role.
Arthur B at 13:26 on 2017-08-10
It sounds like they have given themselves a lot of creative freedom with it, which is absolutely fine by me - everything you cite is a massive improvement over the book.
Cheriola at 20:57 on 2017-08-11
Having just re-read this article and the one for the first book, and then re-watched the first double-episode of the show, I'm also struck how up-front the show is about Allanon's manipulative streak and the main hero's less-than-heroic nature (I don't want to use the shaming term "whimpyness".)
Like, there's actually a character (an ex-lover bitter about being abandoned) who outright calls Allanon a "puppet master who's manipulating innocent lives as he sees fit" (to his face) in the pilot, just to make clear to the audience not to fully trust the guy. (Even though he's otherwise presented as almost the Only Sane Man in a world where the entire younger generation irrationally refuses to believe magic is real / still existant, the whole Ellcrys-protecting-the-world-from-demons thing is more than "folklore", or that that the Chosen really were murdered by a demon infiltrator, not a Gnomish attack that should be answered with war.)
Also, Will is refreshingly self-aware and unashamed of his non-macho personality, which seems to contrast with what you wrote about his father's character development in the previous book. (E.g. when Amberle tries to stroke his ego, after he's told her of his helplessness when his mother was dying, by calling him brave during the demon attack that follows their initial meeting, he answers with self-depreciating humor: "Don't mistake terror for bravery." Even though that's manifestly untrue in this situation: While Will was against going to investigate a scream without Allanon and they both would have been dead if not for Allanon's timely rescue, Will did have the instict to push the unarmed Amberle behind him and pull his little dagger to try and defend both of them, even if this attempt was obviously futile.) It's not that Will presents himself as a coward, á la Rincewind, nor even that he's refusing The Call because he's comfortable in his life, á la Frodo. (Will grew up being bullied for his elven heritage and he lived in a hovel in the middle of nowhere, with his mother's death being implied to have happened because they were so far away from civilization. He'd already decided to upend his life to move to a city and get an education, when Allanon derails those plans.) It's just that he never had any aspirations to become a fighter/mage, and sensibly sees no reason why he, random dude without relevant skills, should be called upon to save the world from demons. Which totally makes sense for someone who was planning to become a healer, but still seems unusual for the protagonist of an otherwise cliché-riddled book presumably written primarily for a young male audience. So was that part of the book characterization, or was the apprentice healer backstory in the book just there to make a plot point later?

Will also spends most of his early interaction with Allanon basically calling him 'full of shit' on both the issue of magic being real and his insistence that Will should throw away his life to save the world because that's what his blood / destiny says he must. Allanon, in turn is literally like "Why did I have to be dealt this Shannara?". The relationship between those two is so far from the traditional respectful-to-reverential mentor/hero relationship in this genre (e.g. Frodo / Gandalf or even Luke / Yoda), that it made me wonder if this was already in the book as part of the author's few glimmerings of originality. Or was it just added by the TV show writers for the sake of comedy and modernism? (Will and the other young characters also talk mostly like modern people, with Will in particular frequently using irony / snark to cope with his crappy destiny (he sometimes sounds like someone doing a rifftrax of a clichéed fantasy movie: e.g. Allanon: "I was tracking down descendants of the Shannara bloodline. They were being murdered." - Will: "...Of course they were."), which makes Allanon and his straight-out-of-LotR, portentous and purple language and almost total lack of humor stand out like some sort of fossil. (Which makes sense in the setting, but not really very much. He's only been in magical cryo-sleep for 30 years. It feels more like 300.)

At one point Allanon explains to Will that his father (whom Will only knows as a "sad, lonely, dead-beat drunk" whom the rest of his family refused to talk about after his premature death) was single-handedly responsible for saving the world and that "his courage and fortitude inspire [Allanon] to this day." And his failings of character later in life were apparently caused by "magic taking its toll". This does not seem to square with what you wrote about the protagonist in your review of The Sword of Shannara. Which makes me wonder if its just another lie to inspire / guilt-trip Will into fulfilling his part in Allanon's plans? On the other hand, Allanon tells another character (the aforementioned ex-lover, who apparently knew Will's father as well) "I'm not convinced he'll be the man his father was", with his tone implying that it's not meant as a compliment. Which sounds more like the show wants to retcon Will's father into really having been this great, tragic hero that Will fails to measure up against. This is made more confusing by the season's Big Bad (here called "Dagda Mor") getting the same backstory you described for the "Warlock Lord" in The Sword of Shannara, while at the same time being implied to have spent the last few hundred/thousand years locked away with the demons in the Forbidding. The older character's of Will's father's generation just vaguely refer to a "War of the Races" as the major conflict 30 years earlier.
Robinson L at 15:00 on 2017-08-30
Cheriola, from your description, it sounds like the show’s producers are playing fast and loose with the backstory – note that, according to the review, Will is supposed to be the grandson, not son, of the hero of the first book. Given the creative liberties they’ve apparently taken with the source material (to the show’s advantage, it sounds), why not do the same for the set up?

I have to say, you’re making this TV show sound mighty tempting. The self-aware humor sounds kind of like the deliberately anachronistic comedy of e.g., Xena. The female characters sound pretty great, Allanon sounds like a potentially compelling character, and a well-adjusted, non-stereotypical, non macho male lead is refreshing.

The dynamic between Allanon and Will sounds pretty entertaining also, potentially. However, when you say Will “sees no reason why he, random dude without relevant skills, should be called upon to save the world from demons,” that sounds like maybe he’s one of the protagonists who’s constantly trying to get out of taking part in the story, which is one of the most annoying tropes in fiction. Is that Will’s angle, or is it more that he thinks it’s inane but he’s going along with it anyway?
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