I can trace my love of high fantasy to two works that I read way back in the late 1970’s, when I was just a teenager. The first, of course, was JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The second was the The Sword of Shannara trilogy by Terry Brooks, which launched a fantasy empire that begins to wind down now, 40 years later, with the recent release of The Black Elfstone, the first book in The Fall of Shannara quadrilogy.
Everyone loved the Lord of the Rings, there is no doubt, however, I would maybe argue (with myself) that the Shannara body of work has been far more important to me, because the overall scope has been much more grand, covering 4 decades. The stories of Middle Earth, however, stopped after Tolkien’s death in 1973, with the exception of some posthumous releases compiled by his son, Christopher Tolkien. Fellow Geekiverse fantasy fan, Jeff Pawlak, just reviewed Beren and Luthien, which released in June of this year.
There are few things that have been a part of my life longer than the Shannara stories. Hell, I’ve only been married for 29 years, and Shannara has been around for 40. I will freely admit, however, that I have not read them all. Although, I have read many of them more than once. The originals are books I feel called to return to from time to time. One of the things I’ve enjoyed so much of the books is that, while within the same frame work, Brooks felt comfortable jumping ahead years between books and starting with a new set of characters, who are related to the old characters through heredity and geography, but not immediate proximity.
The Black Elfstone does exactly the same thing. We meet three new characters who, I imagine, will carry the brunt of the load over the 4 book conclusion to the Shannara story line. Drisker Arc is an exiled Ard Rhys or High Druid. He lives in a quiet cabin in the woods until young Tarsha Kaynin, gifted with use of the wishsong, arrives trying to convince the old druid to be her teacher. In Paranor, we meet Darcon, or Dar Leah, in his current position as the High Druid’s Blade or protector. The one catch is that Dar Leah was appointed by Drisker Arc before he was exiled. The Druid, the young magic user, and the swordsman protector – a formula that has worked for Brooks throughout his 40 year run. And while it may seem like Brooks may just be using stock characters, these three are enjoyable variations on that theme. Drisker Arc is a much more likable character than Allanon ever was. Tarsha is a young girl, much like Brin, the first of possessor of the Wishsong who we met back in The Wishsong of Shannara. But Tarsha is a much stronger, much more self-reliant character than Brin ever was. Like Brin, Tarsha also has a brother, Tavo, who is also bestowed with the Wishsong, but who is not experiencing it at all like the others before him.
One of the things that The Black Elfstone is doing well is returning to the roots of the Shannara story. Even in the title, we return to the Elfstones, which are one of the foundational magic elements of the Four Lands. The Elfstones of Shannara is probably my favorite book in the whole series, so I was excited for that. Along that same vein, the inclusion of Drisker Arc, an exile, returns us to the solitary Druid, and within his story near the end of the book there is a great twist that is reminiscent of magic that we saw last used in the days of Allanon.
There are three overarching questions that are at the core of this book, and, I imagine the whole of the 4 books.
The first is the story of Drisker Arc. Since his exile from the Druid Order he has been living a life of solitude in his wooded retreat with friends like the forest imp, Flinc and a Moor Cat named Fade. Within the first few pages of the book we find that his quiet life is over and that, for some reason, after all this time he has enemies that are willing to go to great lengths to keep him from interfering in what is to come.
The second story involves young Tarsha and her attempts to save her brother from the magic that he cannot control. While she has practiced and gained control over the wishsong, Tavo cannot, and as the magic grows, so does the darkness.
The third story involves a strange army, undoubtedly a tool of the main antagonist, with powers that are clearly born of magic. In the very beginning of the book this army makes its presence known by decimating a company of trolls, a seemingly impossible task that they accomplish almost with ease. While by the end of The Black Elfstone we may not know exactly who the main antagonist is or what is the ultimate goal, there is another event of such significance that it also returns us to a time in the history of the Druid Order that reminds us immediately of Allanon.
Evolution of a World
One of the charms of the Shannara universe that Brooks has created is that it has been a long-term project and as such shows the evolution of this civilization over thousands of years. During the past 4 decades it has not remained flat, but instead, ever-changing and growing. The Four Lands is Earth, after the Great War in the 21st century and the resulting apocalypse that destroys a society built on science. Over the course of these 40 years, Brooks has taken us from a society based on magic to a society where both magic and science exist, to a society where magic is now outlawed in many places and science rises again. In the beginning it was horses and carriages and boats for transport, and swords and bows and arrows for weapons. Like any society over time, this world evolves too, and as the world developed, Brooks included innovations like airships and guns, of a sort, which were marvels of the day back when he introduced them. Now, as he winds down the story, these are much more commonplace, and barely draw a look anymore. In addition to physical innovation, Brooks has painted a picture of societal change, as well, with complex political relationships being developed throughout the history. Like the politics of our modern real world, I have often, over the years, found myself scratching my head at decisions made by leaders in the Four Lands and the fictional political ramifications of those decisions. The Black Elfstone carries on that tradition.
Finally, another joy of reading the Shannara books is the ease of the language that Brooks has used to craft his world. As I mentioned, I am a huge fan of The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, but there are things that Tolkien has written that I have not been able to finish because the language and storytelling are too arduous, in particular The Silmarillion. I have never had that problem with Brooks. The Black Elfstone was an easy read that allowed me to get through it quickly and thoroughly.
The one big change is that in many of Brooks previous books, each book is almost stand alone. When it is finished, so is the story, until the next volume picks up with new characters. That is not the case with this. This is clearly book one of four. While there are some minor resolutions to events at the end of the story, there is no resolution to the three questions pointed out above, in fact, in some cases there are more questions than answers at the end. This is not a stand alone story, by any means. Brooks has announced that this is the end of the forward movement of the Shannara storyline, so the question is, will it be an epic about magic’s last stand? And will the world shift ever more towards science again as history repeats itself.
Terry Brooks has said that he wants to bring the story to a close. He will do it over the span of four books, released in June of each year. So we will have to wait until June of 2020 to see how the Four Lands and the Druids, Olmsfords, Shannaras and Leahs bring his life’s work to a close. Brooks, who will be 76 when the final book is released, has not ruled out writing more Shannara stories, but if that materializes, those stories will fill in gaps in the great and rich history he has created since 1977. I, for one, appreciate that he wants to close it out on his own terms, after what will be a 43 year run.
The Black Elfstone is a great beginning of the end. In many ways it returns us to the elements and story-telling of the original Shannara world that Brooks created in 1977. It is an easy read, with enough intrigue to keep the pages turning.
+ The Four Lands remain a great setting in which to tell stories.
+ The characters, while maybe similar to stories in the past, are full of dimension and are unique.
+ The 40+ year evolution of a society is coming to an end in an epic battle of good and evil.
+ Lots of great elements from past stories. A good way to end by tying in traditions established long ago.
– Like all good things, this too must come to end. Doesn’t mean I have to happy about it.
– Because he is spreading it out over 4 years, this installment has less meat on its bones.
– Having to wait 3 years to finally finish it out is kind of a drag.
Like this? have a look at other book articles by The Grumpy Geek
The Grumpy Geek, Pete Herr is the author of “10 Things We Should Teach You In High School and Usually Don’t”. He is the oldest geek in the Geekiverse by a factor of two. Follow Pete Herr on Facebook, Twitter,and Instagram . If you don’t he gets Grumpy. You don’t want to see him Grumpy.
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