Having run his Shannara series into the ground, Terry Brooks has decided to show us how it all began. With Armageddon’s Children, Brooks not only begins to describe just how the Four Lands came into being, he also manages to tie his (unread by me) “The Word and the Void” trilogy into the whole thing. Don't worry if you're a fan of those books and didn't realize they were pre-Shannara books. It sounds like this is a recent phenomenon. The good thing about Armageddon’s Children is that it gives a fresh start, allowing Brooks' strengths to shine through. Some of his weaknesses are there as well, but not nearly as annoying as usual.
In the late 21st century, the world lies in ruins, getting worse if that's at all possible. Terrorist attacks, the responses to them, and humanity's basic poisoning of the planet have made it nearly inhospitable. Most people hide in fortified enclaves scattered around the U.S. (Brooks doesn't really get into what's going on outside the United States, other than to imply that it's pretty much the same). A Knight of the Word named Logan Tom, sworn enemy of the demons emerging in the chaos, is assigned the task of finding a magical creature that may be able to save at least some of humanity before everything else is destroyed. Angel Perez, another knight, finds herself pulled away from the task of rescuing children when demons take over some of the enclaves, told to help the Elves with their problems (which is a problem, considering Angel doesn't even believe in Elves). The Elves, who have secreted themselves away since mankind’s rise to prominence, may have to move their magical tree, the Ellcrys, because of the demons that man has unleashed. But they need to find the magical elfstones to do it. Finally, a group of children and young adults in the Underground of Seattle, fight day by day for their lives against the creatures both human and monstrous inhabiting the streets. But Hawk, the leader of the group, finds more to himself than he’d ever before thought. When all of this comes together, the conflagration could be very intense.
The dystopia-centric nature of current science fiction (and fantasy, when it deals with the "real" world) has become tiresome, but it is understandable in Armageddon’s Children and so forgivable. Also wearying to readers are the shots aimed at current politics; since Brooks pretty much limits this to naming the children's fierce guard dog protector "Cheney," though, I'll let that pass as well. Brooks does get heavy-handed with the "if we continue as we're going, things will fall apart" message, but it’s possible to quickly move past it. I didn't feel like I'd been walloped with the "message bat" like I have before.
Instead, Brooks uses all this as a springboard for some interesting characters and some fascinating scenarios. Logan is kind of the serene knight, but he's not above finding humor in the situations he finds himself in. He actually smiles a few times, which Brooks' serious characters don't do that often. When he meets up with the children eventually, he is amused by the mistrust with which they treat him but willing to go along with everything because he understands what they're going through. Angel is the fierce warrior who cares deeply about the children, so much so that she resists being directed to do something else. Even the children are intriguing, each with their own story on how they ended up here and with well-developed personalities. Brooks spends a little too much time on flashbacks to explain his characters' pasts, but the pasts themselves are interesting, demonstrating clearly why the characters behave the way they do.
There isn't a lot of action in the book, but Brooks does his usual great job with it when it happens. He's quite the dynamic writer, and the fight scenes flow quite nicely. It's typical PG-rated stuff with very little gore. His characters escape (when they do, of course) by a combination of luck and skill, as it should be. He avoids making the knights indestructible, and there's always a smidgen of doubt about whether or not the character will survive (other than the fact that this is the first book of the trilogy, of course).
As for faults, once again Brooks goes into brooding overdrive, with many pages devoted to characters thinking about their problems, what they should do, what they've already done, what they should have done, etc. Brooks' characters always overanalyze everything, but that tendency is more interesting in Armageddon’s Children, possibly because we're not familiar with these characters. In the Shannara books, that same tendency becomes excessive and very tedious. It will likely become grating by book three, but we're not there yet, and I enjoyed getting to know these characters this time around. There is also the occasional clunky turn of phrase. On page 179, Brooks writesfrom the viewpoint of one of the elves: "In truth, it didn't matter. They could sit around talking until the cows came home, but it wouldn't help." That just threw me out of the book for a moment, trying to picture elves (rather serene and haughty beings) even thinking that phrase./p>
Armageddon’s Children is probably the strongest Terry Brooks book in a long while, probably because, while he is still telling a Shannara story, he has removed himself from the familiar surroundings of the Shannara world. I enjoyed wandering the desolate streets of downtown Seattle (a city with which I'm somewhat familiar) with him, as well as getting to know characters who don't fit the typical template. There are no druids (though the knights are magical, of course, and may be the precursors of the Druids), no character from the Leah family to get annoying. Instead, we have brand new situations and characters whom we can care about. I know I'm anxiously awaiting the second installment.