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Bearers of the Black Staff

Terry Brooks’ Legends of Shannara duology is a direct continuation of his Genesis of Shannara trilogy, except that it’s set five hundred years later. This duology is exceptional for Brooks  because his Shannara books have mostly been written in sets of three. This comes as a change of pace for the fantasy writer. Not oddly, it feels a little rushed.

In the last Shannara book, The Gypsy Morph, a human boy that was also a fairy creature with magical powers named Hawk led a chosen few group of humans and mutants and Elves on a biblical exodus to a secure valley in the Rocky Mountains. He used his powers to become a magical mist that protected that valley. Because he could. The rest of the world got nuked, but not the valley, because it was protected by a magical mist.

The sequel, Bearers of the Black Staff, starts with that magical mist fading away and the inhabitants of the valley becoming exposed to the outside world. Said outside world is filled with mostly mutants, who have started calling their new species fairy names like Trolls, mostly to match up with the continuity of the books that come later in Brooks’ Shannara saga. The book itself is mostly about the inhabitants of the peaceful valley coming to terms with the realization that their remote world is about to be shattered.

The biggest antagonist to this realization is a religious figure named Skeal Eile, who holds the religious title of Seraphic and is leader of a cult called the Children of the Hawk. The Children of the Hawk believe that Hawk will return like Jesus (remember, Hawk was a messiah figure in the last three books) only after the protective mists failed. They are proved to be wrong, but the Seraphic holds to his own socio-cultural power for the sake of remaining powerful.

This is obviously Brooks’ commenting on conservative, militant religious zealotism. You could apply this commentary about power-hungry fools clinging to their faith to any religion in our world—be it Christian, Muslim, Jewish or whatever. The problem is that Brooks expresses his socio-religious commentary mostly in long-winded scenes where characters meet and debate in the kind of councils that are cliché to fantasy literature. These scenes read like descriptions of the C-SPAN channel, and are about as exciting.

When it comes to fantasy, I want to read about badasses with big swords and magical powers punching and zapping each other. There is some of that in Bearers of the Black Staff, but not enough for my taste.

There is also a lot of generalized exposition. Brooks masterfully ends his chapters with exciting cliffhangers of characters being attacked by wild beasts or realizing that their allies are in fact traitors to their causes. But when he next picks up with those characters, he usually starts his narrative not with the fallout from the cliffhanger, but instead some time later. And he’ll fill in the narrative gap of what happened between with several pages of dry exposition. This is why the book feels rushed. Brooks should have taken the time to expand these exposited scenes and fill them in with rich details. Instead of glossing over the conflict that occurs between a cliffhanger and the next plot point, he should have delved into it and given it nuance.

I should mention that the title derives from the black staff one of the characters, Sider Ament, carries. This staff was apparently handed down from generation to generation from one of the magical badasses that inhabited the valley at the end of The Gypsy Morph. Part of this story is about how that staff came to be in Sider Ament’s hands, and who will carry it next.

There are other characters in this story aside from Sider Ament, of course. He is not even the protagonist, although the narrative is fractured enough between different characters that it’s hard to tell who exactly is the central character. If there is one, he is Panterra Qu, whose strange name has nothing to do with him being earthy, despite it being derived from “pan.” The names in Bearers of the Black Staff—and indeed most of Brooks’ books—are so strange that I often wonder if he came up with them by slapping silly syllables together and seeing what sounded funniest.

I am being overly harsh. I enjoyed reading Bearers of the Black Staff. Mostly I enjoyed it because I enjoyed the books that preceded it, and wanted to see what happened to the people Hawk led into the protected valley. I also read Brooks’ other Shannara books, which occur some time later in the chronology of Brooks’ fantasy world, and I wanted to see how that world evolved and came to be. Bearers of the Black Staff is written so that it can be accessible to new readers, but it will be best understood and enjoyed by Brooks’ regular fans.


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The Gypsy Morph by Terry Brooks

The Gypsy Morph starts with a lone man named Willis trapped in a large nuclear missile silo complex with nothing to do but eat canned food, reminisce about how his companions have died, and think about launching nuclear missiles. Willis is a ticking time bomb. He is Chekov’s gun. I’m not spoiling anything by saying that he launches the missiles and destroys the world at the end of the book.

This is the last book in Terry Brooks’ Genesis of Shannara trilogy, which means that it wraps up plot lines established in the first two books, Armageddon’s Children and The Elves of Cintra. The story is still set in a post-apocalyptic version of our world, and it is still more of a fantasy adventure than a realist tale. This book reads much like the other two; if you’ve gotten this far, you don’t need me to tell you what the tone is like.

And if you’ve read the first two books, you already know what’s going to happen in this one. The magical boy named Hawk, the messiah figure introduced in Armageddon’s Children, has to lead a large group of human and mutant refugees to a place of safety before Willis launches his nukes. The Elf named Kirisin has to use a magic rock called the Loden Elfstone to transport the Elven capital city Arborlon – called “Arbor-lon” because the Elves like trees – to said place of safety.

That they will succeed is never in question. The Genesis of Shannara trilogy is just part of an ongoing saga, and the next few books have already been commissioned by Brooks’ publisher, Del Rey. And this saga is all prequel to his Shannara series, wherein Arborlon has survived and thrives.

With much of the plot predetermined, there are only two questions left. The first is how many characters will die along the journey to safe haven.

The second question is whether Terry Brooks is a good enough writer to make the story interesting.

He is. The Gypsy Morph is fun and engaging. It is a quick read, and a pleasurable one.

Brooks makes The Gypsy Morph fun by putting his characters through no end of strife. The protagonists are all hunted by demons, who have by this third book amassed an army of zombie-like once-men and evil mutants. They attack the main characters and the refugees, and this is violent and exciting. There are even a few large-scale battles, and Brooks excels at describing these.

Brooks makes his story relatively intelligent by adding heavy subtext of Judeo-Christian mytholgoy. Hawk was established as a messiah figure in the previous books, partly because he experienced a kind of death and resurrection. Now he embodies Moses as he leads his followers on an exodus away from the Pacific northwest urban centers. He performs miracles to stave off their demon pursuers, and then he leads them on a long, arduous journey through a desert.

The sequence involving the long, arduous journey is itself arduous to read. It comes at the end, and the book plods towards its inevitable finish. That Brooks seemed bored with writing the end of this trilogy is the series’s greatest flaw.

Perhaps Brooks, a traditional fantasy writer,  felt out of his comfort zone while writing this post-apocalyptic story, and wanted to get done with toward the end. The next set of books in this prequel saga should be more standard fantasy fare, and he will be in his element there.

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The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Phil Marlowe is a clever bastard who can never drink enough and plays life with a close hand. He’s not a tough guy, but he talks tough when he needs to. He is a private detective, and he is not bad at what he does because he is dedicated to the pursuit of truth, even when that pursuit takes him outside the law and against the wishes of his clients. It’s not that he’s curious; he just can’t help himself.

Marlowe is probably named after (among other bastards) Joseph Conrad’s character Chris Marlow, who descended in the heart of darkness of the African jungle and colonialist psyche. Phil Marlowe’s life takes him through the darkest heart of Depression-era LA. He regularly witnesses the horrors of pre-modern culture, and takes a drink in response. The drink rarely helps.

The High Window is the third case Marlowe took that he needed a novel’s length of words to yap about. Marlowe rarely talks at any length unless he’s figuring something out, so it makes sense that after a case he’d talk himself through the whole thing, trying in vain to find out the real meaning behind everything – like why the world is full of such bastards.

In the case of The High Window, Marlowe is employed by a rich widow named Murdock whom he describes as a “warhorse.” Mrs. Murdock swills port and demands that he recover a valuable coin, the Brasher Doubloon. She’d also like him to get her son to divorce his lower class wife and not any questions about her family.

The plot, just like real life, is complicated. It involves blackmail, social class disputes, sex affairs, double crosses, pornography, and what have you. Over the course of the book, Marlowe happens across a few murders. He asks questions about the Murdocks and he gets answers.

The plot is so complex it almost doesn’t matter. What matters is the writing and now good it is. The High Window is written by Raymond Chandler, and Chandler was one of the best writers to ever use modern American English. Few have written sentences as clear and descriptive and poignant as his. Ernest Hemingway was one of his peers; Cormac McCarthy is another. Both came after Chandler, and Chandler is wittier than both. Chandler can write a sentence like, “She had a smile that I felt in my hip pocket,” and get away with it.

Chandler’s style fully realizes Marlowe’s voice and character. Chandler’s also a smart enough writer that Marlowe’s investigations lead him to realizations of great psychological depth. Marlowe probably didn’t know what psychology was; if he did, he’d think it was a load of hooey. But to him, finding out who did what is less interesting than finding out why. He’s less interested in finding out who stole the Brasher Doubloon and who murdered to cover it up than why Murdock called him in the first place and why she is a widow. He finds out all of these things because he is a good detective.

Chandler’s books do not contain one central mystery of whodunnit, but instead explore the intricate and intimate secrets of people who are rotten. His characters are always rotten for more than one reason, and Marlowe finds out what some of those reasons are. Mrs. Murdock, it turns out, is an especially rotten woman.

The genre of detective fiction lends itself to clever investigation of deep, societal truths. It became prominent during the Great Depression, when such investigation was necessary. Raymond Chandler was probably the best writer working within the genre at the time. We could use someone like him today, sending Phil Marlowe into our tortured streets to find out what the hell is wrong with us.

At the very least, he could remind us that we could all use a good drink. Even if it might not help.

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The Elves of Cintra

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.


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Armageddon’s Children

This is a poorly written review I wrote on 6/15/06 of the Terry Brooks book Armageddon’s Children, which was the last time I read a book by Brooks. It was previously published on I am posting it here to provide context for my review of the book’s sequel.

Terry Brooks has been a master of modern fantasy since before the genre became popular or widely accepted. Over the years, his Shannara series has offered breathtaking action and epic escapism.  His Landover series provided more lighthearted fantasy tales.  Less than a decade ago, he wrote the tentatively titled Word and Void books, three contemporary fantasy novels darker and more real than anything he wrote before.  Now, in a trilogy set hundreds of the years in the future, he offers a sequel of sorts in the form of another trilogy.  The first book of that trilogy is Armageddon’s Children, and it is a fine start to what could be a landmark story.

It takes place in an apocalyptic future, where the remains of humanity live in compounds to prolong their inevitable extinction.  In Word and Void books, the forces of good—the Word—and the forces of evil—the Void—were locked in an age-old struggle.  In Armageddon’s Children, the Void has all but won.  The characters of this book are locked in a seemingly hopeless struggle against darkness.

In this first act of a three-part story, we are introduced to the cast of this fragmented tale.  In Seattle, a boy named Hawk leads a gang of abandoned children and pines after his forbidden love, Tessa, who lives in one of Seattle’s compounds.  Logan Tom, in central America, is a Knight of the Word charged with the duty of finding a Gypsy Morph, a creature of wild magic that has been missing for many decades.  In San Francisco, Angel Perez, another Knight of the Word, flees the forces of the Void, only to be confronted with a seemingly impossible mission: to find and aid the long lost Elves.

In such an apocalyptic novel, one might expect a dark, almost repulsive style of writing, one that delves into the horrors and monstrosities that have taken over the world.  Brooks avoids this, steering clear of a gritty prose.  In fact, he sidesteps any adult content.  The prospect of pregnancy is brought up between two characters, but their love is given no sexual tension.  One character uses the word “frickin’” instead of actually swearing.  Instead of describing them to any extent, Brooks simply states that atrocities were committed in the past.  Characters walk by bodies without noticing what they really look like.  These details—or lack thereof—detract from the reality of a novel that should have been steeped in it.

Also, the characters sometimes seem underdeveloped. Brooks has always had problems with his dialogue, and Armageddon’s Children is no exception.  He is a structured novelist, and as a result, his dialogue is sometimes forced to suit the plot.  Also, Brooks develops his characters through exposition and flashback rather than through their actions.  The result works—we know these characters—but we are told who they are, rather than shown.

Still, Armageddon’s Children can hardly be considered a bad novel.  While the word “gritty” cannot be used to describe Brooks’ style in this book, there is another word that can describe it, and it is every bit as suited to describe an apocalyptic book: biblical.  In Armageddon’s Children, Brooks’s prose is grandiose and fantastic in traditional biblical style.  As if to reinforce this interpretation, one character tells the story of Moses and the Israelites.  Another character encounters a preacher and his followers.

Still, it is not in the language but complex plot and in the action sequences that Brooks’s talents shine.  Armageddon’s Children features no fewer than four interweaving plot threads, and, while only two of them meet up, the rest of the series promises to link together in a wild, majestic adventure.  The book is also dotted with a number of intense action scenes sure to thrill even the most demanding of readers.

Terry Brooks has always been an expert at crafting plot.  The only question is if his prose will carry him through the dense story he crafts for himself.  In Armageddon’s Children it does, though not in a way commonly expected from a book with Armageddon in the title.  This is a fine novel from a master of his craft.  The rest of the trilogy promises to be even better.

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Shtick Shift

Here is a review of Simcha Weinstein’s Shtick Shift I wrote. It will be appearing in the upcoming edition of IMAGE Magazine, where I work full time.

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