Bear with me a second when I say that the first installment in Terry Brooks’s Landover series bears some resemblance to Elizabeth’s Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. No, really. In both books, the narrator has to come to terms with a painful separation from a loved one and feels the need to leave their established life behind to find inner peace. Elizabeth Gilbert survives her divorce and subsequent love affair by eating pasta in Italy, meditating in India and then falling in love in Bali. Ben Holiday comes to terms with the death of his wife by buying a magic kingdom and establishing himself as its rightful king. Obviously things diverge at this point and to give you a clue, it’s not Eat, Pray, Love that becomes shit.
Holiday, a 40-year-old lawyer is surprised when a Christmas catalogue addressed to his dead wife appears in his mail, advertising a genuine magic kingdom for sale. Work is a matter of going through the motions and after two years he’s still finding it hard to come to terms with her death, as Brooks lays out for us in some detail.
The truth was that he didn’t know how to accept it. He had loved her with an intensity that was frightening, and she him. They never spoke of it; they never had to. But it was always there. When she died, he had thought of killing himself. He had not done so only because he had known deep inside that he should not, that he should never give in to anything so obviously wrong, that Annie would not want him to. So he had gone with his life in the best way that he could, but he had never found a way to accept that she was really gone. Perhaps he never would. (p15)
We’re off to a good start and that’s ignoring the reminiscence of the circumstances of Annie’s death on the second page of the book. Holiday is intrigued by the advert and decides to investigate the offer by flying to New York and being interviewed by one Mr Meeks.
New York was cold, gray, and alien, the jagged edges of its bones cutting into a sky masked in clouds and mist, the flat planes of its skin glistening through a steady downpour. Ben watched it materialize beneath him as if by magic as the 727 slipped over the waters of the East River and settled down toward the empty runway. Traffic jammed the distant freeways, lifeblood flowing through arteries and veins, but the city had the feel of a corpse. (p19)
Quite nice I thought, except for the minor problem that it is substantially better than his later descriptions of the magic kingdom itself which is arse backward. Holiday makes the purchase and makes his way to Landover where he initially believes that Landover itself, the dragon and the demon-ridden monster that tries to kill him are all special effects. Now I’ve seen plenty of films made in the mid-1980s; if Holiday thought that Hollywood was capable of producing the likes of what he describes then he (or rather Brooks) is a fucking idiot.
Holiday eventually cottons on to the fact that he really is in a proper magic kingdom, albeit one slightly different from the one advertised. Landover hasn’t had a true king in over twenty years and is in disarray. The barons of the land refuse to swear fealty, the army has been disbanded (why an army was necessary in the first place is never explained), the castle is falling apart, a dragon is rampaging around the land and there’s a demon lord who is going to challenge him in a duel to the death at some point in the near future. Plus the land itself is dying due to something called the Tarnish. On Holiday’s side is Questor Thewes, the incompetent court wizard (and described far too damn often as having an owlish face), Abernathy, a talking dog and court scribe and two kobolds.
As The Tough Guide To Fantasyland notes, if there’s a map at the start of the book then chances are you’re going to visit every damn place on it and so we do. Holiday’s master plan to fix Landover is to visit his subjects in person and ask them nicely to swear fealty. Unfortunately they all refuse citing various problems that Holiday promises to address without having the first clue how to do so. To lessen the blow of being rubbish, he spies a naked green girl bathing in a lake who promptly falls in love with him. Sort of.
He could not bring himself to answer. He was seeing her clearly now, finding her exquisite beyond anything he would have imagined possible. She was an artist’s flawless rendering of a fairy queen brought suddenly to life. She was the most beautiful creature he had ever seen.
She came forward a step in the moonlight. Her face was so youthful that it made her seem hardly more than a girl. But her body… (p174)
“Ben.” Her voice assumed a sweet, lilting cadence as she spoke to him. “I am a sylph, the child of a sprite become human and a wood nymph stayed wild. I was conceived on the midear’s passing in the heat of the eight moons full, and my fates were woven in the vines and flowers of the gardens in which my parents lay. Twice each year the fates decreed, I was to steal to the Irrylyn in darkness and bathe in her waters. To the man who saw me thus, and to no other, would I belong.” (p175)
And that’s Willow in a nutshell. She spends the rest of the book following Holiday around begging him to accept her and he keeps rejecting her because he doesn’t want to betray the memory of Annie. Eventually he caves in to her feminine wiles but not because she’s a well-rounded character or anything – hell, even the dragon gets more of a background than the love interest.
So, Holiday eventually secures some allies in the form of the G’home gnomes, Fillip and Sot, finds a way to defeat the evil witch, subdues the dragon (in which we get more depth to the dragon’s character than any other supporting character bar Questor Thewes) and defeats the Iron Mark. Like we didn’t see that coming.
Although not the worst written book I’ve suffered in recent months (that prize has to go to Conquistador), it epitomises the word anodyne. Not only that, it seems to not know what its target audience is. Its simplicity could arguably attract a younger audience were it not for the main character suffering a midlife crisis and angsting about his por ded wife, but that’s not a position that I agree with. The predictable plot and lack of character development is a serious flaw for any audience, YA or adult, and though the writing is passable, the explicit nature of Holiday’s thoughts is infuriating.
The last time I read a Terry Brooks’s book was Running With The Demon, my views on which are ably summed by the Infinity Plus review by John D Owen. Based on these two books, I doubt that I’m going to read any more.