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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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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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