Terry Brooks was perhaps the first “epic fantasy” author I ever read. Since I was a teenager, his books have maintained a distinctly positive place in my mind for that alone. As I recently picked up The Elfstones of Shannara (which I first read at age 16), I wondered how it would hold up for me personally, given all that I’ve read and the life I seem to have lived since then.

I sort of expected Elftsones to disappoint me here or there. Books I loved as a teenager often do nowadays. I also wasn’t sure how well my own tastes would take to it now, after more than five years since I’ve read any of Brooks’s work. Not to mention that I really didn’t like the MTV adaptation of the book, further upping my reservations about a reread (once the elf DJ put on Coldplay during the magical Ellcrys ball, I sort of stopped believing).

Caveats and concerns aside, my Elfstones reread reminded me just how powerful Brooks can be as a storyteller. I loved the book the first time around, and I loved it much more this time.

Here are a few reasons why.

The Elfstones of Shannara has an amazing opening

Brooks has written several striking starter chapters through the years, but Elfstones stands at the top for me. The very first scenes accomplish a great deal of worldbuilding, set up the key plot challenges (a magical seal that has held demons in check for millennia is now fading), and get fairly deep into the mind of one of the book’s most interesting characters.

This opening hooked today-years-old me and pulled me right back into the Four Lands, even after my many years away.

So many recent epic fantasy novels err on the side of not taking time to properly ground the reader—and so many back in the day took too much time setting the table before any story starts happening. Yet Brooks manages a wonderful, readable balance right from page one. Not every chapter does it quite so well, but it goes a long way to get such a compelling, craft-smart chapter right out of the gate.

Elfstones has a unique and compelling structure

The first chunk of the book follows Ander Elessedil and then Allanon the druid, giving plenty of plot and high stakes without ever meeting Wil or Amberle—whom I recalled being the real heroes. The Elftsones of Shannara is somewhat like The Lord of the Rings in how it alternates mostly in large batches of chapters, leaving similarly large breaks before you get to continue with another storyline.

Tolkien’s structure doesn’t work for every reader. But by establishing a more regular cadence of story juggling, Brooks gets the benefits—longer stretches to really get to know the characters and appreciate each sub group’s challenges—along with the big book feeling of having multiple plotlines unfolding in parallel.

One of the most interesting aspects about Elfstones is how little the viewpoint characters in one storyline know about the ones in another. It really helps up the stakes, since they’re all in the dark at the same time the reader is, which is not the case in The Lord of the Rings or many other books that alternate between characters at a more conventional pace.

There’s a lot of sequel power in The Elfstones of Shannara

Brooks’s first book (The Sword of Shannara) is somewhat famously similar to The Lord of the Rings, and not in terms of structure as referenced above. The plots and character groupings are remarkably alike. In fact, these similarities are the number one source of criticisms for Brooks’s debut.

That said, The Sword of Shannara made a huge impact on fantasy as a viable ‘genre.’ The pressure was on when Brooks wrote Elfstones. Add to that pressure: a) Brooks writing half of a totally different novel and having to scrap it; b) Brooks having to rewrite half of Elfstones for his editor after finishing the first draft; and c) general challenges making the middle book of a trilogy as strong as the first or third, and you have quite the recipe for a boring old book two of yesteryear.

Instead, Brooks brings true sequel power—taking what was good and making it better while offering a truly new story. Very little about Elfstones feels like a repeat of Sword’s initial success. Brooks truly pushed himself into new territory with this one, and it pays off big time for readers because the story, character, and setting all stand on their own.

And that might be one of the core strengths in The Elfstones of Shannara: A reader can pick it up without having read the former book. That reader can get a whole story in this single volume. There are clear rewards for reading book one first (and book three after), but this is one of those rare trilogies that doesn’t require 100% followthrough to get a complete story.

Killing the villain isn’t the solution in Elfstones

Most epic fantasy ends with a violent solution. Defeat the baddie and the problem is resolved. This was one of Ursula Le Guin’s biggest complaints with the genre (and for something wholly different, look at her Earthsea Cycle).

Elfstones is about as martial as most epic fantasy, with several large-scale battles and numerous smaller ones. But we find out early on that the plot needs a resolution other than being the best warrior. Furthermore, Brooks fulfills that promise both through the development of the plot and via key characters like Ander, Amberle, Wil, and even Allanon.

Spoiler alert: Allanon does kill the baddie. And the fight keeps going.

Brooks’s offers a much more interesting solution in the end. Instead of killing something, the heroes solve the problem by growing something. I wish I had a few dozen more epic fantasies that use creation as the solution to destruction (again, read Earthsea if you want this too; Sean Russell’s Initiate Brother Duology is another great example).

The Eflstones of Shannara has a hard-hitting ending

Last but least is the last. Elfstones brings it home with a fantastic ending. This is shockingly rare.

Epic fantasy, as a genre, tends to lack strong endings. You’d think people would copy Tolkien more and give the ending time to breathe. Yet so many epic series rush to the finale and fail to deliver much beyond a big battle. This might not be such an egregious sin except that some of these series have pulled readers along for thousands of pages, all for a lackluster moment that doesn’t deliver on what readers really want.

Elfstones isn’t most epic fantasy. It wraps up several carefully introduced themes. The story sees every major character through to a critical arrival point. It ties loose ends briefly but powerfully. There’s even a hint or two at more story to come without requiring the reader to press on through another volume.

Just as I wish for more epic fantasy with journeys like the ones in Elfstones, I’d love to read a few more that pull the ending of the journey off so well.


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About the Author

Headshot of epic fantasy author Stephen Taylor.

Stephen Taylor is the author of The Witherclaw Trilogy as well as short fiction appearing in The Future FireMYTHIC Magazine, The Centropic Oracle, and other publications. His short story “Only an Ocean” won a Silver Honorable Mention in the L. Ron Hubbard Writers of the Future Contest. When he’s not writing, he’s often playing my violin or wandering in the woods.

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