Sunday, 2 November 2003

The Word and the Void

Terry Brooks
ISBN 1-84149-266-3

‘The Word And The Void’ is a compilation of the three tales of John Ross and Nest Freemark – ‘Running With The Demon’, ‘A Knight Of the Word’, and ‘Angel Fire East’. The novels span the fifteen years between Ross’s two visits to Hopewell, Illinois, and illustrate his ongoing battle with the creatures of the Void, the very essence of evil and destruction. For Ross is a Knight of the Word, an agent of the opposing force of creation and good, and he fights to save humanity from the dark future that awaits it.

In the first and best of the three books, Ross arrives in Hopewell for the first time, hot on the trail of a demonic foe. But he has other, more sinister reasons for being there. The Knight is gifted with prophetic dreams of the apocalyptic future, and something terrible is due to unfold in this sleepy midwestern town. It is Ross’s duty to prevent that occurrence, and he enlists the aid of the young Nest Freemark who possesses no small magic of her own. As they oppose the minions of the Void, Nest will be forced to confront her own dark family past and discover the truth about her parents.

In ‘A Knight Of The Word’, five years has passed since John Ross left Hopewell. He has lost his faith and his power, forsaking his vows as a Knight, and works in the big city at a shelter for the homeless. Little does he know a demon seeks to corrupt him, turning him to the service of the Void, a fallen paladin commanding the forces of evil. Nest Freemark is dispatched by the Word to reason with him, explaining the danger he is in, but Ross is caught up in his new work and wants nothing to do with his old life. To save him Nest must reveal the all-encompassing nature of the war between the Word and the Void and bring him back to face his enemy.

In the final part of the trilogy, John Ross returns to Hopewell fifteen years after he left to seek Nest Freemark’s aid. He has captured a gypsy morph, a creature of magic that could turn the tide of the war for whoever unlocks its secret. But all the forces of the Void are mobilised against him and closing on Hopewell, where Ross must face up to his most deadly opponent yet as he struggles to solve the mystery and claim the magic for the Word.

Terry Brooks writes with skill and finesse, illustrating his world with expressive description and an eloquent, almost lyrical flow to the words. In particular he has a knack for interesting and evocative phrases and metaphors that truly bring his scenes to life. The world his characters inhabit is one very similar to our own, albeit darker and more hopeless, where the war between the Void and the Word takes place in the shadows out of the public eye but influences every aspect of daily life. It is a war for humanity’s soul, an endless battle to keep civilisation from collapsing into anarchy and terror, and the Void is winning. Brooks uses his secret war to point out the slow decay of our culture, the erosion of morality and honest values in favour of chaos and selfishness. Everywhere throughout the three books there are signs of this downslide in standards, though each one takes a particular issue as its centre – unemployment, homelessness, and drugs respectively. Each topic is well researched and the air of defeat and hopelessness excellently conveyed, and the idea of the world ending as a result of hundreds of minor, inconsequential events and failures is an interesting and original one. Brooks comments on society and its little failures are perceptive and insightful, his message clear. We think we are invulnerable but Brooks shows us the fragility of our way of life, and it is frightening.

The characterisation within all three stories is of the highest quality, with every character from the heroes and villains to relative nobodies well documented and their motivations and actions consistent. Similarly, the events that unfold during each book are straightforward and make perfect sense, the mundane and fantastic worlds meshing together nicely. The development of Nest over the fifteen years between books is particularly fascinating, almost as if you’re seeing snapshots as a girl grows into a woman. The only problem I had with the characters is Pick, the sylvan guardian of Sinnissippi Park. The idea of a foot-high man made of bark and leaves seems curiously at odds with the dark, gritty setting, and his personality reeks suspiciously of comic relief, something which shouldn’t be necessary in a series as serious and hard-hitting as this. With the exception of Findo Gast in ‘Angel Fire East’, the villains of each book remain relatively uncharacterised – the demon in the first book is never even named. However, this is no real problem, as their motivations are clear enough and they remain true to form throughout.

The style and pacing in each book is excellent, with a very slow, long build up to the final confrontation near the end of each book. The only downside to all this is that the finales themselves fail to live up to the expectations created, leaving the reader slightly let down. It’s not that they climaxes aren’t exciting, merely that they seem slightly flat after all that has come before.

The only real gripe I have with this series is that is seems unfinished. The events at the end of ‘Angel Fire East’ are inconclusive and leave the future uncertain, in a way that almost seems to invite another book. As it is you feel somewhat let down, unsatisfied by the nebulous ending. But even combined with the occasional utterly bizarre character name – a relic from Brooks’ Shannara series – this cannot spoil an utterly riveting trilogy, and so ‘The Word and the Void’ will take up a place of honour on my ‘Social Commentary’ shelf.

This review was originally written for