"The Elfstones of Shannara" functions better than "Swords" in terms of showcasing Brooks personality and strengthening the differences between him and Tolkien. While this chapter in his fantasy saga does not pull Terry Brooks out of his predecessor's shadow, it does take a step in the right direction. It seems strange, almost, reading a book decades after it's published, and then reviewing it almost a year after. But the fact that I still recall most of the characters and most of the stepping stones that form its plot speak to my fondness for this story. Published in 1982, "Elfstones" expands the Shannara universe. While the first novel journeyed north, this one explores west, just as the next sequel, "Wishsong," goes east.
The young Omsford hero is Wil, the grandson of Shea, whose journey to master the unpredictable, untamable, and immeasurable power of the Elfstones and escort Amberle Elessedil to the Ellcrys form the pivotal arc of the novel. Yet I would argue that the two Elessedils' personal struggles are more worthy of attention. Over the course of the story, Amberle learns of the terrible sacrifice she has to make and through her, Brooks studies the age old balance between personal freedom and a far-reaching destiny. It is the choice all heroes have to make and of course Amberle emerges true, but the cost is dire and when Wil feels gut-wrenching despair at what is lost, so do we feel it; not because Brooks tells us to (I'm telling you to, dammit), but because we've all lost someone close to our hearts, or at least, we can imagine what that would be like.
In hindsight, I doubt Wil and Amberle ever entertained romantic feelings for one another. But their chemistry for one another and the intricacy of love that emerges from taking another being's life and swearing to protect it with your own transcends romance. They were bound in life and I think Brooks nailed it honestly and perfectly.
The other significant hero in this narrative is Ander Elessedil. He is the younger, underwhelming Prince of the Elves. He has a strained relationship with his brother Arion, a close one with his niece Amberle, and an unfulfilled one with his father Eventine. The Elves serve as wardens of the Ellcrys, a magical seal over a prison dimension containing demons from the Age of Faerie. As the Ellcrys weakens and demons pour out, the Elves muster their armies for war. The battle is narrated fluently, as I've come to expect of Brooks. When Arion is killed in battle, Ander is thrust into a leadership position, and he forces himself to act as his brother would. Fake it till you make it, it would seem. Against the desperate mood of the war in the backdrop as slowly, but surely, their Elven forces lose ground and numbers, Arion becomes a capable military leader and a beacon of hope for his people. He develops a friendship with the formidable but kind Stee Jans, the leader of the Legion Free Corps, one of his fewest confidants.
The story is gripping, the characters memorable, the tone somber. Wil and Amberle's harrowing flight is fraught with death and sorrow from beginning to end while Ander's warfront captures the dark mood and desperate perspective of real-world combat. This is easily one of Terry Brooks' darker novels and one of his finest additions to an epic universe in the multiverse of fantasy.