Angel Fire East concludes the trilogy which began with Running with the Demon and continued with A Knight of the Word. In these books we met John Ross, who has been battling the unseen forces of the evil called the Void for a good portion of his life. His curse is that he never really sleeps. Once he becomes unconscious he slips into the future and lives through events which he must struggle to prevent coming to pass when he is awake. Sometimes he succeeds.
We also met Nest Freemark. First we met her as a teenager, helping a wood sprite maintain the magical ambiance of a forest near her home. Ross helped her through a personal and mystical crisis period. Some years later they met again. This time it was Ross who needed her assistance and she managed to help him pull through.
This is now their third meeting, 10 years after the last one, 15 since they first met. Since then Nest has had a career as an Olympic runner and has had to give it up as the effort she put into it caused her to almost lose control of the demonic side of her mystic heritage, which can manifest itself as a large, protective wolf-dog. She has returned to the house she grew up in, and has a career, which we don’t hear much about.
Ross has recently become the guardian of a gypsy moth, a tangible expression of wild magic which can be turned any which way by whoever gets control of it. At the moment it looks like a young boy, but that is a transient form. If its does not discover its true nature within a certain time frame, it will cease to exist and the Word will have lost a powerful weapon against the Void.
The other possibility is that it might be stolen by the Void and become a weapon in the arsenal of evil. A small squad of demons, all of whom are former human beings, just as Ross was human before he became a Knight of the Word, has been sent to find him and the moth and capture or destroy it.
This is a tense tale, set during the Christmas season in Illinois, which adds to the atmosphere. To my mind this is the best book of the trilogy, but perhaps this is because the central characters have been given 15 years of growth time to develop.
From comments on Brooks’ website I gather that the story told in these books is part of the larger tale that feeds into his Shannara fantasy cycle, now some eight or nine volumes in length. While a fantasy series, those novels are set in some indeterminate future Earth, after some sort of great cataclysm, the nature of which appears to be hinted at in the Ross/Freemark trilogy.
The way this is developing makes Brooks’ work take on a depth which wasn’t at all obvious in his first novel, The Sword of Shannara, which I have just recently re-read after a lapse of 29 years. When it came out in 1977 the fantasy world was hungry for more Lord of the Rings stuff, and Brooks seemed to be supplying it with an adventure that strongly echoed Tolkien’s original. The way you could match the characters from the two books (the wizard, the woodsman prince, the heroic dwarf, the reluctant provincial hero) made it almost a work of plagiarism, and yet it was clearly more of a homage than that.
Reading it again last month, I was more aware of the differences than the similarities. Setting it within the context of the larger story that Brooks indicates he is trying to assemble in the book’s forward was also instructive, as was the essay about how the book came to be written ... and re-written, and re-written, before he and his late editor, Lester Del Rey, felt he had it just about as good as he could make a first book.
Since that time there has been an absolute glut of fantasy sagas on the market, and most of them, I’d have to say, are pretty pedestrian stuff, hardly a cut above the Dungeons and Dragons gaming scenarios that many of them resemble.
Brook’s work still seems to me to stand out as that of someone who is trying to find a way to tell his own story within that honoured framework, sort of like anyone who tries, these days, to write a sonnet. It’s a poetry form with some very strict rules and formatting, but if you master it, you can use it to do almost anything.