Thursday, 22 May 2008

Recommended reading: Terry Brooks

They say you always remember your first time. I certainly do. I was about fourteen, on summer holiday somewhere in France. I was a little apprehensive at first, as my partner was pretty big and was older than me, having been born some time in the late 70s. Nonetheless, I took a deep breath and plunged in and within minutes a passionate relationship was forged. 

The partner in question was The Sword of Shannara, by Terry Brooks.

I devoured the book in about two or three days and enjoyed every word. Having finally left behind the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks that had sucked me into fantasy and had fed my imagination for a number of years (see my previous post here), I decided it was time to maybe try a 'proper' fantasy book. Sword came recommended to me by a friend. I had no real idea what to expect. 

Perhaps that's why I enjoyed the book so much; I wasn't affected by expectation or pre-conceptions. Here was a novel that took all the things I loved so much about fantasy - adventurers, monsters, epic quests and magic - but took it to a completely new level that I had never experienced before. I was hooked. And thus my love affair/addiction with fantasy was sealed. 

Years later, looking at Sword from a more world-weary, cynical viewpoint, I can understand why this novel - and Brooks himself - has attracted criticism. Yes, it is almost a carbon-copy of The Lord of the Rings. You'd need several hands to count the similarities between the two novels. Yes, some of the writing and structure is clunky in the extreme; the huge lecture given by Allanon early on is one of the most poorly-managed info-dumps ever. But despite the huge debt it owes to LOTR, and the prose and structural problems, Sword is a hugely fun quest novel, with all the right ingredients. No doubt this is why it proved so popular, landing on the New York Times bestseller list shortly after publication. Like it or not, to some extent we owe the modern resurgence of epic fantasy to Terry Brooks (and his editor, Lester Del Rey). 

Brooks was no one-hit wonder. His next book, The Elfstones of Shannara was better still, and to my mind, Brook's best novel. Mixing epic battles with a riveting quest storyline, it to some extent broke free of Tolkien's shadow and established Brooks as a fantasist in his own right. The Wishsong of Shannara - the third Shannara novel - was a decent book but by this point the quest formula was beginning to wear a little thin, resulting in Brooks writing the more complex, four-book Heritage of Shannara sequence. This series features some great passages, one of my all-time favourites being the Four Horsemen besieging the Druid castle of Paranor. Wonderful stuff. 

Brooks went on to write many more Shannara novels, as well as the Magic Kingdom novels (lighthearted, humourous fantasy), The Word and the Void trilogy (a darker, contemporary fantasy) and also The Phantom Menace Star Wars novel. Over the course of two decades, Brooks established himself as one of the giants of the epic fantasy genre.

These days Brooks is often derided as being a Tolkien clone, and his works probably don't get the respect they deserve. It's a shame that much of the negative opinion on Brooks focuses on the shortcomings of Sword. There's no doubt Sword borrows heavily from LOTR, but Brooks has proved his originality and versatility in his later novels. 

For example, the later Shannara novels focus a lot more on the old-world technology found in the world of the Four Lands, often mixing sci-fi elements with fantasy. The novel Antrax is a good example of this approach. His contemporary fantasy trilogy - The Word and the Void - moved away from the tropes of traditional epic fantasy and proves that Brooks can tell a decent story in a different sub-genre.

Most recently, his Genesis of Shannara series bridges the gap between The Word and the Void and the Shannara novels, revealing that the Shannara novels are actually set on earth, long after a nuclear war has reduced the world to a medieval-esque level of technology. The Genesis books focus on the human survivors as they struggle to survive in a harsh landscape littered with nasty predators. Tolkien rip-off? Hardly. 

What I like about Terry Brooks - apart from the fact that he writes cracking adventure stories - is that his books are without pretension, he's just looking to tell a decent story, rather than trying anything too clever or ambitious. Subsequently, his books are enjoyable, pacy reads. 

If you fancy some absorbing, epic quest-fantasy, some slightly darker contemporary fantasy or a tale of survival in a bleak, post-apocalyptic world then you could do a lot worse than Terry Brooks. Plus, I've met him and he's a very nice bloke. :)

Recommended first purchase: The Elfstones of Shannara 

Brook's best novel. A riveting tale of magic, adventure and sacrifice. You'd be hard pressed to find a better traditional epic fantasy adventure. 

Recommended follow-up purchase: The Sword of Shannara

If you like Elfstones, you should like Sword. The original classic adventure that admittedly is very derivative, but is still an enjoyable story in its own right. 

Recommended wildcard purchase: Various

Take your pick. If you don't fancy vintage quest-fantasy, you could start with The Word and the Void for some contemporary fantasy action. Or the Genesis of Shannara, with its apocalyptic setting. Or The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy, the start of Brooks' more recent Shannara efforts, which features plenty of cool things like airships and a higher technology level. Or you could even try one of Brooks' Magic Kingdom novels, an attempt at lighthearted, humorous fantasy. There's plenty of variety, which is why Brooks is a good author to check out and probably deserving of more respect than he receives. 


ThRiNiDiR said...

Brooks was my first too,First King of Shannara,which I loved (First King was kind of a bore afterwards, but I agree about Elfstones being his best work; alas, I can only speak for his Shannara and Heritage of Shannara series)

banzai cat said...

Funny enough, that's how I also started reading Brooks: first Elfstone then Sword. Which is why I was a bit let down with Sword. But I liked Wishsong a lot better than Sword.

Mark Lord said...

I tried Swords recently and couldn't get past fifty pages of it. I was hit by the appalling info dump which finalized my decision to stop reading any further. But other than that I really found the writing quite poor and dull. Brooks seems to have to waffle on with long-winded descriptions when a talented writer would have evoked an image for the reader much more concisely.

I wonder if his success was because no-one else had really tried to follow Tolkein at that time, so there was a hungry market for what he had to offer. Unfortunately though it also gave an excuse for a whole lot of bad writing to follow: Robert Jordan, David Edding, Steven Erikson. Writers such as George RR Martin and Joe Abercrombie, however, show that you can writer page-turning, fun epics and still write well, in fact that's what makes them so readable.

logankstewart said...

Brooks was my first fantasy author, too! I read Sword first, loved it, and then consumed everything he wrote (except Hook). I really liked the Heritage series best.