Friday, 2 October 2009

Armageddon’s Children

Terry Brooks
ISBN: 978-1-84149-480-7

Armageddon’s Children sports the subtitle ‘every legend has a beginning’, but a crueller man than me might consider mentioning more suitable ones. ‘How to kill your sense of wonder’, perhaps, or ‘Leave no cash cow unmilked’. No, wait, I just mentioned them. Get your own.

This, then, is the first in the long unwaited-for trilogy bridging Terry Brooks’ The Word and the Void and Shannara series’. The knightly protagonist of the former, John Ross, was plagued with visions of the nightmarish future which awaited humanity if he should fail to defend it from demons of the Void, while the Shannara books have always hinted at the idea that they were wallowing in the ruins of a post-apocalyptic Earth. In the later series’ particularly, said hints had all the subtlety of a thermonuclear exchange, and true to the trend Armageddon’s Children substantiates all those prophecies and hints with gleeful disregard for any sense of tact or, well, sensitivity.

Yet bizarrely, leaving aside for the moment the question as to whether this book needed to be written at all, Brooks for some reason cheats even those die-hard fans who really did want all their dots connected. Armageddon’s Children kicks off fifty years in the future, long after the last missile fell to Earth, and his characters are too young to remember the Apocalypse. Certainly there are good reasons to pass over the end of the world: doing so allows Brooks to avoid all the hoary clichés of apocalypse-in-motion, while giving Armageddon the attention it deserves would probably require another trilogy’s worth of fiction before this one even got started. There might be another reason, though; the authorial freedom granted by a few years’ disconnect between the impossibly complex reality of modern life and Brooks’ post-nuclear landscape. The world of Armageddon’s Children isn’t a natural evolution of the one we know, or even a decent attempt at it; it’s a cardboard cutout, flat and stale. There’s no sense of organic history, of how these terrible developments might have come about. Just same tired clichés trotted out. Walled compounds filled with semi-benevolent fascists: check. Packs of feral street kids roaming the ruined cities: check. Giant mutant beasties, made giant and mutant through the miracle of radiation! Check.

And of course the armies of marauding raiders, devoid of humanity or reason; what self-respecting post-apocalyptia would be complete without them? And in case you didn’t know about them, Brooks lays them bare before his reader in the first chapter:

The real enemies were the once-men, humans subverted not by radiation and chemicals but by false promises which went something like this: “Do you want to know what it will take to survive? A willingness to do what is needed. The world has always belongs to the strongest…”
Once they embraced the propaganda of the demons, they fell quickly into the thicket of resulting madness. (p.11)

The tragedy of what men must do in order to survive? No, it’s demon propaganda making them Bad Men. In half a page of amateur psychoanalysis, Brooks builds a ghetto fence down the centre of his book: good on this side, evil on the other. Good guys, you have your orders: kill the evil ones with impunity, and without remorse. They’re evil, after all.

It might be a genre trope of high fantasy, but in a gritty post-apocalyptic setting like this such black and white distinctions tend to erode the suspension of disbelief somewhat. And Brooks’ reductive tendencies also deftly render the once-men fairly useless as any kind of credible threat; they’re predictable, one-dimensional and boring, entirely free of suspense. And sure enough for the rest of the book they’re little more than pop-up targets for the heroes to eliminate, like some apocalyptic game of whack-a-mole.

It’s possible that my mistake is in identifying Armageddon’s Children as gritty, however; when nine-tenths of the world’s population has been wiped out and demons roam the earth, you might think you’d be justified in assuming a little grit. But Brooks’ ruined Earth is like the painted backdrop of a theatrical production; it looks the part, but has nothing to do with what’s actually happening on-stage. Instead we get a peculiarly PG-rated version of apocalyptia, where cutesy ‘Street Kids’ play baseball in the mutant-haunted ruins and even the mean and moody ghetto stereotypes refuse to swear:
“You’re out!” shouted Sparrow.
“Out!” Panther laughed. “No frickin’ way!”
“Out!” Sparrow repeated …
Panther picked up the broomstick, waved it her threateningly, and then threw it down again. “What are you talking about? That don’t count! ...”
“It hit you last, and you’re out!”
“You’re frickin’ crazy!”
Sparrow stalked over to him, brushing her mop of straw-coloured hair out of her blue eyes, brow furrowed in anger. “Don’t talk to me like that! Don’t use that street language on me, Panther Puss! Owl, tell him he’s out!” (pp.170-171)
…and so on, like some bizarre amalgam of On the Beach and The House at Pooh Corner.

But the most jarring moment comes about halfway through the book, when the narrative turns its focus on a young Elf caring for the magical Ellcrys, the tree which maintained the Forbidding which kept demonkind in check since the time of Faerie. And if you’re wondering what on earth that sort of high-fantasy language is doing in a post-apocalyptic setting, you’re not alone. It’s as though Brooks forgot which series he was writing for a couple of chapters, and slipped into Shannara without realising. Yes, this is supposed to be the series which bridges the gap between the modern world and Shannara’s high fantasy, but the change of tone is so sudden and jarring that the book never really recovers. If the world is slowly slipping into magic and wonder, shouldn’t the subtlety of the transformation be reflected in the written style? There are any number of ways Brooks could have allowed the fantastic to seep into his apocalypse; the sudden plunge into fantasy tropes we’re given here smacks of nothing more than laziness.

Nonetheless, it’s a change that even the more grounded characters seem to accept with little more than token protest. Witness the baffling moment when Angel Perez, paladin of the Word, is sent off in search of an Elfstone:

Angel scowled, angry now. “Elves created it? You’re saying there are Elves out there? What does that mean? Look, I don’t know what any of this is about. I don’t know anything about Elves and their stones. I’m a barrio girl, a street girl, never even been this far north before in my life, and this Elf stuff is just words that don’t mean anything. You want to tell me what you’re talking about?” (pp.232-3)

Thanks for explaining yourself so thoroughly, Angel. But one short burst of expository dialogue later, she’s quite at home with the idea:

Well, she thought, if you’d accepted that tatterdemalions were real, how big of a jump was it to believe in Elves? (p.233)

How big of a jump indeed? Again, it’s a difficult line to walk; the conversion of the sceptic is a hoary old cliché of contemporary fantasy, and it would have been hard to do it well. But even retreading old ground would have been preferable to the writer’s fiat Brooks employs again and again in Armageddon’s Children.

Better to have left the genesis of Shannara alone than do it badly; at least that way fans of Brooks’ earlier work would still have a mystery to hold onto, to wonder and to talk about. But Brooks has taken that raw potential, that untapped possibility which excites the imagination, and wrung it dry to produce a very ordinary book. Which is such a shame.

This review was originally written for