In “The Elfstones of Shannara” we see the maturation of Brooks’s talent. While “The Sword of Shannara” is impressive largely because of the position it occupies in the development of epic fantasy, reading as an early, if talented, effort, “Elfstones” is a thrilling fantasy tale with developed thematic motifs, characters that stand out as individuals, and brilliant use of foreshadowing and tension-building techniques.
The most noticeable thing for me on this reading of”Elfstones” (because I’ve read it so, so many times!) was the theme of being put in a position of being an unwilling hero. All the main characters–Amberle, Wil, Ander, Allanon, even the King of the Silver River–are called to be self-sacrificing heroes. Unlike Shea in “Sword” or Par in “Scions,” all our main characters in this book don’t want to go rushing off on a heroic quest, but are called to do so anyway and must decide how to answer the call. This thematic unity of the story gives it a satisfying depth without seeming forced, and how each character responds to the demands of the situation in which they find themselves highlights their individuality. There is a level of deft psychological characterization that sets this apart from your standard fantasy fare.
But fear not, there are plenty of expected fantasy elements as well, including the obligatory battle and chase scenes. They, too, are handled well; normally I find descriptions of battle to be so yawn-inducing that I just skip right over them, but the battle at Baen Draw and then the siege of Arborlon are depicted with a vividness that makes it easy even for someone like me who finds descriptions of troop movements to be a fine soporific to feel a part of the action. And the scenes in which the demons are stalking Wil and Amberle through the wilderness as they are on their quest are truly knuckle-whitening: the scene in which the demon comes upon the Rover camp is an example par excellence of how to build tension and fear in the reader. I for one may have lain awake thinking about demon attacks for several nights after reading it 🙂
In “The Elfstones of Shannara” we see why Brooks is one of the most successful authors of modern epic fantasy. All fans and aspiring authors of the genre owe it to themselves to read it. But beware! You may need to read all the other books in the series too.