The Neverending Story

Terry Brooks' jumbo-sized novels about the fantasy world of Shannara just keep on coming—and selling

If the epic fantasy readership's appetite—so famously insatiable for more movies, comic books, short stories, fan fiction stories, forum discussions, slash fiction series, even non-canonical crossover story arc webcomics—were personified as a character from Terry Brooks' mythology, it might be something like the shape-shifting Klee demon, the biggest, most unrelenting, child-eatingest beast from Brooks' new novel, The Gypsy Morph. There's only one thing that gets a fantasy reader more excited than yet another novel in his or her favorite, seemingly endless series. And that's seven more.

"It's complicated," says Brooks of The Gypsy Morph's place in the larger story, adding that there are probably another five to seven books left in the Genesis of Shannara series.

Yes, it is complicated. The Gypsy Morph is sometimes touted as the conclusion of the Genesis trilogy. That, Brooks explains, is something of a misnomer. The book is, in fact, the conclusion of the first set of Genesis books, which, in and of itself, is a prequel sub-series of Brooks' larger Shannara project, which is now 20 books long. Oh, and it also serves as the connecting point between the Shannara universe and Brooks' Word and Void trilogy, an "urban fantasy" series that takes place in 21st-century Illinois.

"The reason is, of course, that it's connected to the other Shannara books," Brooks says. "When I went back into it and decided to do this prehistory stuff, I had to contend with the fact that the prehistory began more than 1,000 years before the start of books that everybody had been reading. And that meant at least eight to 10 more books. It's a daunting task."

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition, sort of the Reader's Digest of the psychiatric field, is a large, heavy, serious-looking book at 943 pages and just under four pounds. Then there's the Wordsworth Editions' Complete Works of William Shakespeare, a meaty 1,280 pages. And the Oxford University Press' paperback version of the King James Bible is an intimidating 1,824 pages.

But, in terms of size alone, these are mere trifles compared to Terry Brooks' Shannara mythology. And that's just as it stands now, still incomplete.

"The thing is, you create sort of a velvet cage with this kind of book," Brooks says. "Once you've created something like this, and people like it, you can't disappoint them by doing something too different."

Beginning in 1977 with The Sword of Shannara (736 pages as a mass-market paperback), an epic fantasy that takes place on a post-post-Apocalyptic Earth populated by elves, trolls, and demons, then two subsequent books—The Elfstones of Shannara and The Wishsong of Shannara (576 pages and 512 pages, respectively)—in what's now known as the "original" Shannara trilogy, and continuing with five more sub-series, one stand-alone prequel, a short story and a graphic novel, and it's now taken Brooks 31 years and more than 10,000 pages to tell one story. Of course, that story takes place over thousands of years, and includes some major wars, at least two Armageddons, and a couple of million goblets' worth of elf blood, all in the name of keeping the beast at bay.

And it's a formula that's been incredibly successful from the very first. In a story that's taken on an air of mythology in and of itself, The Sword of Shannara was almost not published until it was discovered in a slush pile, almost by mistake, by science fiction author/editor Lester del Rey. It went on to become the first fiction book to land on The New York Times' Trade Paperback Bestseller List. Since then, Brooks' books have sold more than 20 million copies.

"Since the first book in the series, each subsequent book has gone up in sales 30 percent," he says. That may have something to do with his readership, which he believes is a tad more mainstream than, say, Anne McCaffrey's.

"Over the years, in talking to readers, I do know that a high percentage of my readers are people who do not read fantasy otherwise," he says. "It's like I have my own little group of people who read me and read a lot of other, different sort of stuff."

In fact, Brooks says, he himself tries to stay away from most modern fantasy.

"It irritates me," he says. "I start to read it, and right away I want to call up the writer and say, ‘Listen, I could have made this a lot better.' It's the supreme hubris, of all hubrises, I think. But I just think a lot of them are missing the boat. "

His readership may be due in part to the unique approach he takes to the genre. His books are set in familiar, not fantastic, locales, rooted in places that Brooks himself has lived. He set the Word and Void series near his own childhood home of Sterling, Ill.

"With those, I decided to write about growing up in the Midwest, as a boy and what I remember about it, and what it what like to have a belief in things that it's natural for a kid to believe in, things that you're eventually forced to outgrow," he says. "That was kind of the impetus. Then after that, it kind of evolved into writing about how we were a civilization on the verge of destroying ourselves."

The Genesis books, however take place in and around Seattle, where the 63-year-old writer now lives with his wife Judine.

In another divergence from genre standards, the books are set in the early 22nd century, about 1,500 before The Sword of Shannara. But, apart from the futuristic conceit and the relatively mundane geography, it's more or less typical magic-and-swordplay stuff from there.

Like every fantasy novel ever, for example, there's an impossible journey, taken on by a scruffy yet oddly capable group of children and creatures (here, mostly elves, and a few men mutated into lizards and spiders).

In The Gypsy Morph, it's not a seeking-out-great-evil-in-order-to-snuff-it-out type journey, like in The Lord of the Rings. That happens, over and over, against greater and greater odds. But that's incidental to the journey in The Gypsy Morph, which fits more into the Exodus archetype.

"It's a bad situation they're in," says Brooks. "The world's been ruined by war. And now they're in a spot where they know they need to get to get somewhere, basically to avoid a massive, full-scale nuclear assault."

Tasked with saving civilization—elven civilization, anyway—is Kirisin, a young elf who can wield strange and powerful magic. Kirisin needs to save the elves of Cintra by trapping them, for nearly half the book, inside a Loden Elfstone, for safe and portable passage along the long trek, an ordeal that, Brooks says, may still cause some adverse consequences for the Cintra Elves.

"Yeah, I have to think about that for the next book, what it was like being trapped inside that stone, now that they have to come out," he says. "In the next set, I think you will see some residual effects."

The other protagonist is Hawk, who appears to be the leader of a pack of street kids from Seattle but who is actually the eponymous "gypsy morph" itself. Hawk is actually a walking spell, forged from "wild [and notably unexplained] magic" taken from the earth. He's the one who will actually lead them to the promised land.

Helping them get there are a couple of Knights of the Word—the designated enforcers of the ultimate good (basically, light-side Jedi Knights)—the street-smart Latina Angel Perez and the Snake Plissken-esque Logan Tom.

The whole thing takes place during and just after the Great Wars. Referred to many times in the original trilogy, the Great Wars render Earth uninhabitable as the result of nuclear, chemical, and biological war, and usher in an age of barbarism. Oh, yeah, therein lies the other fantasy-genre standby: not-very-subtle political allegory. Brooks, a vocal environmentalist and a critic of the policies of the Bush administration, says he started writing the books in 2004, a year after the beginning of the Iraq War.

"What I write about are problems that exist in the larger world that just irritate the bejesus out of me," he says. "When you look at my work, you'll see that there's a lot in there about the environment, a lot about worst-case scenarios, if it's not treated the way it needs to be treated. I think a lot of people in this country are not happy with the way things have been going in this country for the past few years. They just think, you know, how bad is it gonna get? We were so much happier 10 years ago. And that's what I'm trying to write about in a lot of these books."

Hence, maybe, a vicious but morally ambiguous attack wolf-dog named Cheney, owned by Hawk.

"There's an idea that Dick Cheney is a real attack-dog person," Brooks says. "I thought, well, I'm writing about a dog that may or may not be a friend of these kids. You really can't tell. He does some things that are sort of protective, but some things that are maybe sort of questionable. I wanted to give it some resonance with current times, so I thought, ‘Hey, I'll name the dog Cheney.'"

Now, Brooks is touring around the country with his book, making a stop at Carpe Librum. Ostensibly an opportunity to sell The Gypsy Morph, it's also a chance to update his fans on the status of the Sword of Shannara movie, currently in pre-production at Universal Studios.

"The last I heard, the director who attached himself to the project is Mike Newell, and he has a long history of movie-making behind him," Brooks says. Newell, now working on a movie based on the Prince of Persia video game series, also directed Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, the 1994 sleeper hit Four Weddings and a Funeral, Donnie Brasco, and, most recently, last year's universally panned adaptation of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel Love in the Time of Cholera.

Brooks thinks, given the success of the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings films, movie audiences and studios are more accustomed now to respectful adaptations of the fantasy genre than they were the last time he optioned the rights to The Sword of Shannara.

"Years ago, they decided it would be a cooler movie if they turned the Druids into computers, and they talked about genetic mutation. That was bad," he says. "This time I think I'm cautiously optimistic. That's a good way of describing it."