Here's some background for those who don't know anything about the books. Written by Terry Brooks, they're high fantasy based strongly on Tolkien, although they take place in a future world after a nuclear apocalypse. They spawned a massive franchise that's well into double digits now. However, I lost interest after the third. The first -- The Sword of Shannara -- was good, though not brilliant. It complied with Brooks' stated intention quite well: to create a book with the more exciting bits of LOTR minus all the fruity poetry and filler, with more relatable, everyman sort of characters. The book was a huge hit: the first fantasy book to ever hit the NY Times bestseller list, in fact (this was the late seventies).
During the 80s I read fantasy and science fiction at a nonstop pace. I read the classic pulps, I read the good challenging "literary" stuff, I read the complete crap and I read everything between. Sword of Shannara grabbed me, but the second, Elfstones of Shannara, really blew me away. I must have read it about five or six times. I haven't read it in twenty years -- I don't even own it anymore -- but I'm thinking of doing a reread, because the way it handles structure and suspense and action is something I could learn many lessons from as someone who has started to write.
I actually love Tolkien, but the Shannara books are more palatable in some ways: their geographic racism is less in-your-face, and they're not quite as much of a sausage-fest. But if you've read Tolkien, you'll see plenty of characters and races and geographical locations that are nearly pure Tolkien. Instead of Gandalf, for example, there's a mysterious druid in black robes named Allanon (awful name, always reminded me of Alcoholics Anonymous) who adds a randomizing suspense element to the plot because he kicks things off and then disappears for a while and then sometimes he shows up to help and sometimes he doesn't. There's even a Tom Bombadil analogue but he works much better than in LOTR, plot-wise.
That being said, here are the ways that "Elfstones" is still really good.
- the Everyman character is a real Everyman. He's not a teenager, he has a career planned out for himself as a healer that gets horribly interrupted, and he's genuinely confused and terrified as events unfold. He's not just someone who's like, "So I'm destined to save the world, cool beans, let's get cracking," but he doesn't act like a complete jerk and say "but why meeeee" the whole time.
- There happen to be two major female characters who are completely different from each other and have their own separate development arcs. And two scary female villains. Yes, this is out of a giant cast and a doorstopper of a book, but for the genre, that's not too bad, comparatively speaking.
- The villains are great. Not the head villain -- just like Sauron, he's pretty passive -- but the minor ones. There are two Demons called the Changeling and the Reaper, and they are badass. The best parts of the book involve Wil, the Everyman character, and his companions fleeing the Reaper. The Reaper chases them for hundreds and hundreds of pages. They'll meet someone cool who helps them out, you start to care about the character, hmm I hope they make it to the end and resolve their -- oops, the Reaper just killed the fuck out of them. After a while of this, every time I even THOUGHT the Reaper was going to show up, I started biting my nails and thinking nooooooo. I think Stephen King is an incredible writer when he tightens up, but I wish the Dark Tower books were as tight and scary as the Elfstones of Shannara instead of meandering into pop philosophy and self-insertion for such long stretches.
- The chase sequences are brilliant, and that bears repeating. If you've read LoTR, imagine if the Balrog didn't get defeated in Moria. Instead, he followed the fellowship out of Moria and started picking them off one by one. Aragorn, Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Pippin, dead dead dead dead dead. That would be pretty scary, right?
- The politics and military strategy are well-done and suspenseful. I knew things were going to end up more or less Tolkien-style -- everyone comes together and fights off the evil at the end -- but I had no idea how they were going to do it.
- The style was good. No, it doesn't soar to the heights that Tolkien can reach, but it's wonderfully concrete and good at describing otherworldly events. Even twenty years later, passages of the book stand out and settings come alive for me. The hollow of the Witch Sisters. The fight between the elf King and the changeling in the form of his dog. The scene at the bridge with the Reaper.
Just thinking about "Elfstones" makes me want to pick up my meta series on action again. Damn, it's a good book. I wouldn't recommend it for everyone, but if you're into ASOIAF and want a high fantasy fix, you could do worse. Starting with Sword of Shannara is not crucial.
But finding out how it was actually created blew my mind. I'm just going to paste the Wikipedia entry on the process, because it has a lot of numbers:
After Terry Brooks had completed all work on his first novel, The Sword of Shannara, in fall 1975—having begun it in 1967—he began work on another book soon after. The plot he originally chose featured the son of Menion Leah as the protagonist and a girl with a Siren-like song that could manipulate the properties of objects around her. Brooks outlined about three-quarters of the story before beginning to write; he refused an attempt by Lester del Rey to see it because Brooks wanted to impress the editor. However, when Brooks finished three-quarters of the tale in fall 1977 after writing around his law practice hours, he found himself stuck and could not think of a suitable ending. He decided to send the story to del Rey to get his opinion on what the end should be. The reply he received was quite unexpected; del Rey firmly believed that Brooks needed to simply get rid of the started novel and start anew due to a plethora of problems he saw. Once del Rey finished a full line-by-line examination of the plot, Brooks leafed through the comments and found them to be disturbingly accurate.
So, Brooks started over. This time, he created an outline for the full story and mailed it to del Rey and his wife for comments prior to delving into the writing process once more. In his frustration about the old story, though, he decided to forget about his former protagonist—even that character's entire generation. Instead, he gave the protagonist role to the grandson of the hero in Sword, Wil Ohmsford. In place of the siren-oriented tale, he took on the history of the Elves. del Rey approved this new plan, and Brooks began weaving the tale in late 1978. He finished it in late 1980 and sent it off to del Rey. He replied in February 1981 with 25 single-spaced pages-worth of errors or problems, including a roughly 200-page span where he felt that the action and dialogue was seen from the author's viewpoint—not a character's. To address this, Brooks utilized Ander Elessedil, formerly a minor character with little impact on the plot, and turned him into the focus of a majority of the book. Four months later, he sent the story out once again. This time it only required minor alterations.
After reading this, I am in awe of Lester del Rey (and Judy-Lynn del Rey) and wonder how many other flawed bombastic books he could have fixed. I bet he could have gotten The Dark Tower down to a trilogy. I don't know if I'm ever going to write a doorstopper, but it's still wonderful fun reading about how the sausage gets made.