In the mid-1970s, a young Terry Brooks sat down to pen what would become one of modern fantasy’s most popular novels, The Sword of Shannara. Within a decade, he was counted among the genre’s most celebrated authors, credited with revitalizing epic fantasy alongside Stephen R. Donaldson, and the Shannara series was growing in both size and complexity. Only in his wildest dreams, however, could he have imagined that 40 years after the release of that first book, the series would still be going strong, as popular and beloved as ever.
Now in his mid-70s, Brooks is openly aware that age is catching up to him. Ever the pragmatist, he is planning accordingly. “My original plan was to live forever,” he told Entertainment Weekly in a 2016 interview, “but I’m discovering that’s probably not going to happen, and I don’t want to be one of those authors whose series, after going on such a long time, gets written by somebody else at the end. So I decided it was time to at least write the ending, because I’ve had it in mind for many, many years.”
That ending begins with Brooks’ latest novel, The Black Elfstone, the first volume in Shannara’s concluding four-volume series The Fall of Shannara.
So, what does it mean that Shannara is ending? A whole lot. The Fall of Shannara promises to provide a conclusion to an epic battle Brooks first hinted at in The Sword of Shannara 40 years ago. One of the most compelling aspects of the series is the setting: a post-apocalyptic Earth where magic has emerged after a long dormancy ages after humanity nearly destroyed itself in a nuclear war. Though these sci-fi trappings don’t become obvious until later books (notably, 2001’s Antrax, partly set in a run-down high-tech facility ruled by a still-operational A.I.), astute readers will notice Brooks introduced them even in the first volume.
Shannara begins with the simple concept that a humanity dependent solely on science eradicated itself through war and greed. As the series moves along, readers watch the Four Lands grow as magic emerges, flourishes, dies off, and begins the cycle anew, over and over. About halfway through the series, in 1999’s Ilse Witch (the first volume of The Voyage of the Jerle Shannara trilogy), the Four Lands has progressed, mostly under the rulership of the newly-formed Federation (a human government opposed to magic), to the point that science is emerging and shaping society. From this point forward, the series becomes a brutal tug-of-war between science and magic, as opposing sides struggle for power and understanding. With its portentous name, The Fall of Shannara brings together all the elements, themes, and subplots Brooks has woven throughout the series, promising a confrontation between science and magic that will leave the Four Lands forever changed.
Will magic win out, returning the Four Lands to its more naturalistic roots? Will science prove victorious, sending the humans, dwarves, elves, and gnomes on a path towards the stars? Or is history doomed to repeat itself?
After 40 years, we’re about to find out.
Though The Fall of Shannara is set to conclude the overall arc of the series, Brooks has confirmed that doesn’t mean he’s entirely finished with the Four Lands. There are large chronological gaps in the timeline left to explore, most notably in-between 2011’s The Measure of the Magic and 1996’s The First King of Shannara. (If you’re wondering about those dates, the series’ publication order differs from its chronological order; my recommendation is to read the books in published order.) “When he deems it interesting or important, he’ll still write Shannara novels set between already-established generations,” said Shawn Speakman, Brooks’ longtime friend and webmaster.
“I like writing in this world, and I’ve taken a long time to develop it,” said Brooks. “But I’m kind of ready to let go of it. I would like to not have the anticipation of having to do the next series. And I’m doing some other things, of course, so it’s probably time.”
The Black Elfstone might be the beginning of the end, but it’s not too late to begin your own adventure through the Four Lands. But where to start? Though it may seem obvious (and despite its historical relevance), The Sword of Shannara is widely regarded as one of Shannara’s weakest volumes. A better place to begin is probably The Elfstones of Shannara, which coincidentally is widely considered to be one of Brooks’ best books. (It’s also the basis for MTV’s recent television adaptation, which has a second season coming later this year.)
Where The Sword of Shannara was through-and-through a clone of The Lord of the Rings (something even Brooks admits—it was written and published during the post-Tolkien doldrums, specifically to reinvigorate the fantasy market—and it worked!), Elfstones is truly unique, and offers rich adventure, terrific characters, huge battles, and enough heartbreak tto leave you in tears by the finish.
(If you’re really keen on starting with The Elfstones of Shannara, I’d also recommend my chapter-by-chapter reread of the novel on Tor.com. I had a lot of fun with it, and the comments section drew a nice mix of new readers and rereaders.)
Wisely, Brooks writes the series in a manner that makes it easy to jump in at any time. The first three books stand completely on their own; after that, he’s broken things down into various sub-series, all of which have their own beginning, middle, and end. Again, I’d recommend publication order, but you could jump straight in with The Black Elfstone and do just fine (though you’ll miss out on a lot of throwback references and some truly satisfying context.)
Some of the older series are even collected in handy omnibus editions, making it that much easier to jump in:
As a long-time fan, I was pleased to find The Black Elfstone reminiscent of Brooks’ earliest works, which continue to rank with my favorite books in epic fantasy. It’s no coincidence: “I’m trying to harken back a bit to the beginning,” Brooks said,” and using that as a touchstone for some of the scenes, characters, and creatures. It’s sort of a gift back to the readers for sticking with me for this much time.”
It’s a satisfying coming together of what makes Shannara so compelling—an evolving world, huge confrontations between underdog heroes and memorable villains, exciting magic, and layered, patient thematic explorations. Ending a series this long-running and labyrinthine is no easy task, but Brooks has been preparing for this for decades. No question, though, even if they end lives up to our expectations, reaching it will be bittersweet for the author—and for his readers.