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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