Now that our president has the motivations of a Bond villain and the brain of a kumquat, I think there’s one question on all of our minds: What post-nuclear-apocalyptic world would I most like to live in? McCarthy’s The Road? Bethesda’s Fallout? While selecting your favorite hypothetical misery, let’s not forget that science fiction doesn’t have the monopoly on the nuclear apocalypse (at least not under American business practices, where at least a half dozen corporations are vying for that monopoly themselves), and that there’s one apocalyptic landscape that actually doesn’t sound too damn bad: Shannara.
Well, technically the landscape is call “The Four Lands,” which I think perfectly encapsulates author Terry Brooks’ descriptive style of writing. Forget the clever names and fantastical languages of Tolkien! Just call everything what it is! Valley in the forest? That’s the shady vale! Ultimate lord of evil and practitioner of magic? He’s the Warlock Lord! Poultry slathered in enough grease to give half of North America heart attacks? Kentucky Fried Chicken! I didn’t even mind so much that the plot of The Sword of Shannara read like the draft had been turned in on tracing paper with The Lord of the Rings still attached; it was that Brooks simplified the adventure to the point where his nuclear landscape about elves, dwarves, and gnomes with magical swords and monsters just didn’t feel real enough. When Gandalf told Frodo he had to venture out with the One Ring, Frodo understood, “This is dangerous. I might end up being skewered by a nazgul, tortured, then dropped into a pit of lava…and that’s a best case scenario!” When Allanon told Shea Ohmsford he had to find the Sword of Shannara to defeat the Warlock Lord, he sat there smiling like a stoner listening to someone waxing on about the health benefits of blacklights. And his father, upon hearing of this quest, decided it was about time his boy leave home, go out into the world, and probably wind up in some situation where the terms “entrails,” “troll” and “chamber pot” would likely be used in conjunction. And while Frodo comes home battered and weary with a deep respect for the horrors of war and a clear case of PTSD, Shea returns from his adventure a little worse for the wear, but with a smile on his face and a sack of magic rocks.
The Elfstones of Shannara marks the point where Tolkien stopped, but Terry Brooks kept going. It’s no coincidence that the MTV series chose to start here (to avoid a lawsuit by Peter Jackson…it’s also no coincidence that they filmed in New Zealand and cast John Rhys Davies), as the reader first gets to hear plot ideas that hadn’t been abducted, beaten into submission and been forced to dance in some dive bar for 20% of all the singles stuffed into their g-strings at the end of the night. The book shifts the action to the elven kingdom of the Four Lands, where thousands of years ago, the elves rounded up a bunch of demons that were running around shredding the curtains and making a mess of the carpet, shoved them all into a magical closet called The Forbidding, and planted a tree in front of the door. At the beginning of the story, the tree is dying, and Allanon sets out to find Amberle, the elven girl charged with watering the tree, to make her do her job and fix up the tree. But rather than go himself, he decides to locate Wil Ohmsford, Shea’s grandson, who is studying with the gnomes to become a male nurse. Apparently, Allanon has fallen off the wagon because he thinks Wil would be an excellent bodyguard for Amberle because he inherited his grandpa’s sack…of rocks.
While Gandalf was a mysterious character whose actions all fell into place at the end of the story, I still wonder about Allanon’s judgment. Not only is Wil about as witty and charming as a box of cat litter, he does little to nothing through the whole story, influencing the plot about as effectively as the power of positive thinking in the cancer ward. Yet while he could often be mistaken for a potato in the middle of a conversation, he somehow has two beautiful women pursue him throughout the book (which, based on some of the guys I knew in high school, might be the most fucking realistic thing about this fantasy novel…either that or it has something to do with Wil being a doctor.). Amberle is the only character with a real inner conflict, and Eretria, from a band of Rovers who are probably still racial stereotypes even if they’re not outright called Gypsies, is the only one with an intriguing back story. There’s a fairly interesting side plot involving the younger elven prince who unexpectedly becomes king while fighting back the demons, but other than that characters come and go like the story takes place in a public restroom, and they all have less development and characterization than the Taco Bell cashier who always tells me my change in pennies.
Unfortunately, the book suffers from the Johnny Quest syndrome (where something nostalgic turns out to be bland, poorly written and just a little bit racist), but even so it wasn’t painful to read. I know that’s like saying, “Eat at Chipotle! It won’t give you a lot of gas!” But the main draw of fantasy stories comes from magic and adventure rather than meaningful character development, and at the very least the adventure is there. There’s no shortage of demons to stalk, shriek and shred their way through minor heroes until the Elfstones light them up like someone dropped a Zippo onto an oil spill. Brooks’ books have always been rather hit or miss, and I still prefer this one to any of the others I’ve read. There’s a blurb for the next edition, “Elfstones of Shannara: Not bad for Brooks!”