Warning: this post contains spoilers for Terry Brooks’s The Black Elfstone, first in The Fall of Shannara series of Shannara books
Where do I even start with a Shannara review? Shannara is epic fantasy in the very literal sense of the word, spanning hundreds of years of in-world history across myriad series and trilogies and stand-alone novels. Perhaps Brandon Sanderson’s Cosmere may eventually be larger in literary scope, but even that will likely not sprawl so much as Shannara. Where a series like Wheel of Time covers a single story arc, Shannara has era, ages, and dozens of independent arcs. Sometimes, one has to wonder if Terry Brooks can bring himself to write anything that isn’t Shannara: supposedly his Knight of the Word trilogy began as something new, and morphed into a prelude to Shannara.
I started reading with The Sword of Shannara not long after I finished The Lord of the Rings, all the way back in third grade. That book has been faulted for being a clear riff on Tolkien’s masterpiece, and justifiably so, but is nonetheless solid writing, and Shannara blossomed and grew far beyond that beginning. It has evolved as the fantasy genre has evolved, and Brooks has embraced taking the series in new and interesting directions. The introduction of diapson crystals (fantasy-world speak for some kind of naturally occurring photovoltaic cells), and breaking away from the direct Ohmsford line brought new life into the series, as did the formal establishment of the backstory apocalypse that led to the mainline Shannara novels.
So how do I write about a review for a single book in a single, four-book series out of this enormous collection of books? Much of the power of Shannara is in its enormous scope. Although you can pick up most of the sub-series without knowledge of the whole, a lot of what makes them interesting is the references, and that is often what keeps me reading. The writing in The Black Elfstone, for instance, is good, but not great – I don’t think it always flows quite as well as it could, although I would love to be able to write half as well, myself. The complexity is not always as high as it is in some other books, but the world-building is simply enormous. With people, stories, legends, cultures, characters, and species established across so many years of in-world history, Brooks can drop in names of places, people, creatures, and things the way people who write realistic fiction can drop in names like George Washington and Gettysburg.
With all of that, it might seem like The Black Elfstone risks having nothing new to add. There have been points in Shannara where the books began to feel plug-and-play: Ohmsford+Druid+Leah=new Shannara book. That has been less the case, though, since Brooks decided to take the diapson crystal idea he introduced with the development of airships and use it as a catalyst for change in the Four Lands. The old order that has held sway through most of Shannara has begun to show cracks in recent years (in-world time), and The Black Elfstone masterfully begins to widen those cracks.
With a series named The Fall of Shannara, it might seem obvious that there are going to be major changes, but if you’ve read all of the Shannara books, you’ve already been through multiple Forbiddings, four druid orders (I think), innumerable generations of Ohmsfords, and the rise and fall of a dozen dynasties. It can be hard to internalize that this is supposed to be the last Shannara series, and The Black Elfstone capitalizes on that sense, inserting hints of something bigger, something world-shaking, without giving away just how big the events taking place are. Most of the time, people don’t realize that they are living in a moment that will fundamentally reshape their universe, and the well-built, flawed characters (the flaws are what make them strong characters) have this same sense. They know things are happening, and so does the reader, but no one seems to have internalized just how big those things might be.
It’s a hard thing to write that kind of a story, especially from the perspective of the “losing” side, the side that is trying to resist the change. It means that your characters have to be wrong, probably a lot, but as an author you have to be careful to make them appear to being doing their best. There can’t be obvious courses that they could have taken that would have resulted in a better outcome, or readers can become frustrated by character incompetence. The best “losing” characters are the ones that manage to do everything right – and still lose.
The Black Elfstone is the first in a four-book series, and the final book is coming out this month. I’m working my way through the first three to prepare for its release. It will be a bittersweet thing, if this really proves to be the end of the in-world Shannara era. I’ll be reviewing the other books in the series on the site in the coming weeks, as I get through them. In the meantime, I have to decide whether to recommend you read The Black Elfstone or not. Not because it’s not good – it’s very good – but because you really should start back at the beginning with The Sword of Shannara. After you get through thirty books or so, we can talk Fall of Shannara again.