My genre fiction bread and butter is definitely epic fantasy. So, naturally, my two latest reviews, both on the Barnes & Noble Sci-Fi & Fantasy Blog, are near-future thrillers that dig deep into current socio-political issues through their action-packed plots.
Street Freaks by Terry Brooks
Street Freaks is Terry Brooks like you’ve never read him before, but it also manages to strike a fine balance between the bold and the familiar. If you’ve finished Red Rising and The Darkest Minds, and are looking for more, this one will satisfy. It’s fun, progressive, relentlessly paced, and full-to-the-brim with interesting people. Unlike epic fantasy in the ’70s, science fiction doesn’t need saving exactly, but Street Freaks shows that Brooks has it, no matter the genre.
Red Moon is another wonderful Kim Stanley Robinson novel, and all that implies. If it lacks the scope of some of his earlier works, it more than makes up for it with the ambitiousness of its themes, its breakneck pace, and its thoughtful examination of the way societies evolve organically during times of upheaval.
If Andy Weir’s Artemis showed us the perils of surviving on the moon. Red Moon takes it one step beyond, showing us the uncertainly that comes from powerful competing interests vying for control of a new resource—even one that’s been staring us in the face for at least as long as we’ve been around to look up at the sky, and wonder.
I’ve written at great length about my relationship with Terry Brooks’ epic fantasy series, Shannara. After Tolkien, Brooks’ work reinforced my newfound love of elves and adventure, magic, vast landscapes, harrowing escapes, and epic battles between good and evil. One of my main/ongoing criticisms of the Shannara series, however, is that Brooks has a tendency to repeat himself—dipping his pen in the same inkwell too often. Themes, story structure, and characters archetypes repeat themselves in each new Shannara series, which makes reading a new Shannara book sometimes too predictable. He’s shown however, through his other fantasy series, such as Word & Void, a contemporary fantasy, and The Magic Kingdom (a humourous secondary world fantasy) that he has the chops to write original fiction outside of his most famous series, and I’m always curious to see what happens when he turns his eye toward something wholly new.
Street Freaks (Grim Oak Press, 2018) is a major departure for Brooks in a lot of ways. It’s his first pure science fiction novel (if you consider his post-apocalyptic Shannara novels to be a science fiction/fantasy hybrid), and it’s an absolute blast to see him playing in a new playground and worldbuilding from the ground up for the first time since 1997’s Running with the Demon. In many other ways, it’s familiar ground. Thematically, Brooks is sticking with his tried-and-true formula of coming-of-age meets adventure, which has proved immensely successful in the Shannara series. In all, he finds a nice balance between new and familiar, which appeals to the long-time Brooks fan in me.
It’s no secret that I’m a big Terry Brooks fan. He and his work mean a lot to me for many reasons—foremost that his Shannara novels cemented my love for the type of storytelling that I discovered via Tolkien. Every year, I look forward to the next Shannara volume, so it was a bit of a shock when Brooks announced a couple of years ago that his latest series, a four volume set beginning with The Black Elfstone, was the conclusion to the long-running epic fantasy series.
The Shannara books are all over the place quality-wise—some legitimately terrific, like The Elfstones of Shannara and Witch Wraith, others disappointing and derivative of Brooks’ earlier work, like The Gypsy Morph or Bearers of the Black Staff. Lately, they’ve been pretty good. The Black Elfstone, which I reviewed for Tor.com, managed to be nostalgic without being too derivative, and added back a lot of the meat that was missing from Brooks’ novels in recent years. It felt, for lack of a better word, appropriately epic considering its place as the keystone in a conclusion to a 40+ year series.