I haven’t read a Terry Brooks book in a long time.
I had already read Tolkien by the time I got to Shannara and even at a very young age I was able to identify the similarities and not view it favorably. This was odd for me because when you’re young you kind of just like the fact you are watching a movie, reading a book, playing a game, and it takes awhile before you decide oh… this isn’t good.
My opinion on Brooks is not that simple though.
In later year I started blogging about books to some success and that initial reaction I had about Brooks carried with me and I did what a lot of people do on the internet and that’s find something you don’t like to be a platform for what you do like. I’ve come to find that stance was not fair to Brooks but more importantly it wasn’t fair to my own reading experience.
The Lord of the Rings is going to go down in history, has already done so, as a literary classic. It’s done. It’s locked. Shannara wasn’t and isn’t that.
What Shannara was though is no small thing. Shannara was a giant success and in many ways spearheaded the modern fantasy book market. Brooks kept on writing bestseller after bestseller and while some of us may scoff at that, it has a tremendous effect. It opened doors.
In a previous post about Dune I talked about that I was a kid who had at an early age read a lot of classic novels, which included The Lord of the Rings. After that though Fantasy novels weren’t things I ran into everyday. This was pre-internet, I was a kid under 10 year old, so life, the world, was really about what you literally physically ran into.
My local public library had this series of three chest level shelves lined up in the front of the room as you walked in the entrance. Showcased on the top of them would be new releases, typically reserved for household names. Mainstream novels, rarely genre novels, and if so almost never fantasy or science fiction. One of the exceptions was the books of Terry Brooks. NY Times Bestsellers had that kind of clout I guess. And Brooks books had covers that either repelled you or, if one of the initiated, was EXACTLY the thing you were looking for.
There was a time in my life where every trip to the library was one I hoped led to a run in with a Terry Brooks cover I had never seen. Remember the doors I was talking about Brooks open? I meant it both in terms of what kind of business Brooks books did and the library door. On those occasions I didn’t see a new Heritage of Shannara book, the possibility of that random encounter was what got me through the doors. Disappointment in not seeing it led me to the library shelves where the regular catalog was stores, scanning books, finding authors that would shape my late childhood, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Ursula Le Guin, Stephen King and others.
Today in my hand I have a new Terry Brooks novel. I’m in Hawaii, Terry is one of my neighbors though he doesn’t know it lol. It’s called Child of Light.
I’m 100 pages into it and I have two observations.
The first is that Brooks’ greatest tool is comfort. To this day I can recall how Brooks Shannara novels begin. Its usually is on the move, a walk, whether its Flick or some other Ohmsford or Allannon, Brooks usually has us on the way to something. We begin our journey in brand new setting and, again, with one already in motion. In Child of Light we begin during a prison break from what appears to be gun totting goblins who imprison, eat, enslave, and breed human children, yet we are completely comfortable, we are completely in-step, we are not disorientated in the least, and it’s not something he learned from the repetition of writing stacks and stacks of bestsellers, he has done this since The Sword of Shannara. Literally before I walked the earth.
The term comfort food is almost exclusively derogatory when used about entertainment and art but if your back catalog is comfort food, you retire in Hawaii. It’s also a skill people would kill for. Someone had to make all this crazy, stereotypically cringe worthy fantasy shit, and put it in novels for mass consumption, and Brooks does it from page one. I don’t think there is a single moment in Shannara that feels disorientating or is an overload. Brooks was welcoming. He was unabashedly welcome. And unlike some of those that would follow him in epic fantasy he mostly let his work speak for him. He was the king before we knew there was a throne and though he’d lose that throne to writers who would expand and take epic fantasy to the next level, he was a good king. His reign prepared us for the era to come.
Which brings me around to a point: Terry Brooks was the entry way for many fantasy readers. Tolkien’s LotR, much like Herbert in science fiction, doesn’t really pass for the reads of young children. Certainly it’s done, I did it, but most people aren’t reading Diary of a Wimpy Kid in the same year they are reading The Lord of the Rings. For every kid walking into libraries like mine or into a book store with limited shelf space for fantasy, I can almost guarantee what they did have was paperback Terry Brooks books.
My other thought is more micro. Child of the Light is taking a long time to get to a place a reader like me (or you) already knew where it was going. The novel’s official description could stand in for the first 80 pages, like literally, you could skip the first 80 pages and just read the summary. My fear is that it also covers the final 50 or so pages too.
Still, it’s been awhile, and giving a new Brooks books a chance seems the least I can do for the guy who put new fantasy novels next to names like King, Steele, and Grisham on the featured shelves of my youth. When zeitgeist novels that hit big like Memoirs of a Geisha would come out Brooks would make sure a big fat fantasy with a Keith Parkinson or Darrel K. Sweet cover would be sitting next to it.
The enormity of how cool that was should never be, and never have been, taken for granted.
I think the knock on Brooks, if it is even that, is that he is not a dangerous writer. He may have reopened the door to let some through though. I’m not sure if Tyrion gets to piss of The Wall if Allannon didn’t come for Shea Ohmsford and takes us on journey and remind us of our magical heritage.
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