As the title implies, The Elves of Cintra is a fantasy novel. It contains fantasy tropes like magical knights, demons, dragons, and of course Elves. Some of the Elves go on a quest. Other characters also spend a great deal of time traveling. There are long sequences wherein characters do a lot of walking. Like all modestly budgeted fantasy novels, this book comes with a map so that readers can keep track of where the characters are walking to and from, and where they stop along the way.
Interestingly, the book is also a post-apocalyptic novel set in our own world–northwestern America to be exact. Writer Terry Brooks is from Seattle; it makes sense that as a fantasy writer he’d apply the adage write what you know to geography. The Elves of Cintra also employs tropes of the post-apocalyptic genre, like bands of rogue bandits, decaying cities, pestilence, mutated creatures, and barren landscapes.
Brooks is best known for his Shannara fantasy series, which is set in a fantasy land–rendered in several maps–that is supposedly our world, but far in the future when things like magic and Elves exist. The Shannara books are standard fantasy fare wherein magical creatures fight epic battles and go on quests and stuff like that. The first book Brooks published, The Sword of Shannara, stole a lot of plot points from J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. A lot of fantasy writers do that with their first works.
The writer’s best work was a series called The Word and the Void, three books set in Brooks’ hometown in Indiana and in Seattle. These were works of literature in the sense that they were packed with metaphor, alliteration, references to mythology and Americana, and all sorts of things that literary critics like. They were fantasy books, but they focused not on creating a new, fantastical world, but rather on how fantasy might bump up against the harsh reality of our world. They had more relatable characters than those in Brooks’ other books, and were more fully realized stories because everything in them was recognizable, not farcical.
The Elves of Cintra is the second book in an ongoing project where Brooks attempts write a bridge story between his masterpiece set in modern America and the far-future fantasy world of Shannara. In this story, it is purported, Elves have always existed in our world. They’ve just been hiding.
The book is set in a post-apocalyptic America in some indefinite near-future after the forces of the Void–which is a nice name for “chaos” or “evil” or “destruction,” all of which are the traditional self-destructive goals of fantasy bad guys–have all but obliterated humanity. Nuclear winter has destroyed the east coast, but the west coast, where medical marijuana was made legal, is just an arid wasteland. The Elves, of course, live in a vibrant forest.
The Elves of Cintra is the second book in a trilogy, and so it catches up with characters who have already done a few things, and it follows a few plotlines. Some Elves led by a young fellow named Kirisin and a magical Hispanic chick symbolically named Angel Perez go on a quest to find some gemstones that will give their owners magic powers. They do this so they can save the Elven nation–which seems to consist of one city and a few thousand citizens–from demons, who are henchmen of the Void. Along the way, they are pursued by demons. Meanwhile, a young boy named Hawk, who is the messiah figure of the series, undergoes a Jesus-like period of death and rebirth. And Hawk’s childhood friends walk south across a post-apocalyptic landscape toward the Columbia River. They are protected by a magical badass named Logan Tom. With a name like that, the guy must look like Wolverine in a cowboy hat. On their journey, Logan Tom and the kids he protects fight robots and another magical badass named Krillka Koos, who represents conservative militant zealotism and the ideals associated with that ethos.
One problem is that this book doesn’t read like an apocalyptic novel. It makes reference to real-life landmarks like Seattle, Portland, and the Columbia river, but it fails to convey the sense of how these places might look or feel after they have been ruined. It lacks the gritty surrealism of a world where most everyone is dead, buildings lie in ruins, and the air tastes of radioactive soot. Partly this is because Brooks is not a talented enough crafter of prose. His sentences lack the stark desperation and preciseness of description that made Cormac McCarthy’s The Road a masterpiece of the genre, or the edginess and horror that made Stephen King’s The Stand or his The Dark Tower saga compelling and immersive.
Instead, Brooks writes The Elves of Cintra like a standard fantasy book. His plot is well-constructed, and he maintains a sense of fantastical wonder throughout his story. His characters treat their journeys as leisurely things and marvel at magic when it happens. But that sense of wonder is out of place in a story where the characters should be desperately trying to survive in a world of horrors.
Part of this whimsical tone comes from Brooks’ seeming reluctance to depict the kind of darkness and viscerality that would realistically come of such a world. There is violence in this book, but no depictions of gore. There is no sex or swearing of any kind, even in situations where any character should be cursing. This book is safe for children and it suffers for it.
That aside, Brooks’ prose is solid. He stacks clauses on top of each other, developing each sentences smoothly, giving each a sound rhythm, stacking ideas and thoughts on top of each other, occasionally letting a sentence plod on a clause too long. This sort of pacing suits the story, and the rhythm of the sentences is pleasant, but Brooks is no Cormac McCarthy.
The characters are mostly well developed. They have complex motivations. But Brooks makes the mistake of explaining the thoughts and motivations of the characters in long, windy paragraphs that pile on top of each other. He tells instead of shows what each character wants, and explains why. This approach lacks subtlety.
There are a few exceptions. In a few key sequences, Brooks writes flashbacks to explore the past lives of the children wandering south with Logan Tom. These passages are written with a subtlety and attention to prose that most of the rest of the book lacks. They are poignant and artful, and they develop characters who had previously been defined by their names.
There are also political messages interspersed throughout the book. Some are more subtle than others. The most obvious is one of environmentalism. We probably shouldn’t poison our world with chemicals and radiation, Terry Brooks says, or human beings will start mutating into armies of mutant lizards and we’ll have to fight them with magic. These messages can be ignored by those who don’t enjoy reading subtext.
I have been cruel and snarky in my criticism of this book, but The Elves of Cintra is entertaining. It’s a quick, enjoyable read. The book has quests, magic, excitement and intrigue, and it has a unique setting for these types of things. This book is excellent escapist fare, and it comes with intelligent subtextual undertones that make it smarter than the average fantasy book.
But my expectations were raised because this book comes as a sequel to Brooks’ best works, the Word and the Void stories. And it doesn’t quite measure up to those works of literature.