Thursday, October 01, 2009

100-Page Check-In: Running with the Demon

Before I talk about the first book (chronologically, anyway) in Terry Brooks' Shannara series, I just realized that I never came back and said anything else about Matt Ruff's Bad Monkeys. And shame on me, because it was fantastic. Five out of five Ray Guns That Look Like Toys But Really Aren't.

Too much time has passed for me to give it a proper review, but even if I'd just finished it I'd hate to reveal more about it than I already have. I have to at least mention it though for a couple of reasons. 1) To assuage a small part of the guilt I'll probably always feel for not forcing everyone I ever meet in the future to read this book, and 2) because it's fundamentally changed the way I'm implementing the 100-Page Rule from now on.



Like with Airborn, I got to page 100 of Running with the Demon and wasn't sure how to proceed. The book wasn't Bad, but I wasn't wholly sure that I could call it Good either. By the letter of the Rule, the book has to be Good by page 100 for me to keep reading it. If nothing else, Airborn taught me to trust my instincts on that and not keep reading in hope (however reasonable) that it was going to get better. But with Running with the Demon, I genuinely didn't know by page 100 whether or not I was enjoying it.

My problem is this: Terry Brooks has a fantastic imagination and is an excellent creator of worlds. He's also the worst offender of the Show, Don't Tell Rule I've ever read. I heard him say at a bookstore reading once that he doesn't revise his manuscripts. I don't know if that's still true, but if it is... I really wish he would. Some tightening up would make his stuff so much more enjoyable.

Running with the Demon is chronologically the first book in the Shannara series. I read Sword of Shannara and Elfstones of Shannara as a kid and loved them. Even though Sword blatantly rips off Lord of the Rings, at the time more Lord of the Rings was exactly what I wanted. Obviously I wasn't alone, because the book did extremely well and launched Brooks' career.

The immediate sequels came out when I was in college and shortly after and I didn't have a lot of time to read, so I never got around to them. But I remember being very curious about all the hints Brooks dropped that his fantasy world was actually the post-apocalyptic future of - if not our world - a world very much like ours. I wanted to know more and when the prequel First King of Shannara came out, I ate it up. Brooks left mysteries unrevealed though, so I've always wanted to go back and see how it all began. Running with the Demon is supposed to be that book.

What I'd hoped for was a book that started very much in the real world and then slowly began to introduce fantasy elements to it. That's not at all how Running with the Demon begins. After a prologue that introduces a character we don't meet again in the first 100 pages, we meet Nest, a young girl in the small town of Hopewell, Illinois. Instead of letting us get to know Nest as a real person though, the book opens with her talking to a wood sprite. Immediately, this doesn't feel like our world at all. It's not even really like ours. Sure the geography's the same, but it's a world in which faeries and magic and dark forces are all well-known to the main character. I wanted to be eased into the magic so that I could feel some wonder about it; instead I was asked to take for granted that magic exists. It didn't feel like a starting point.

I complained about this to a buddy and he reminded me that this isn't really the first book in the series. Brooks likely expects that you've read the other stuff already. It's like watching Phantom Menace before you've ever seen Star Wars. It sounds like a good idea on paper, but they're really not intended to be experienced in that order. Unfortunately, that's how I want to experience the Shannara series: in chronological order, watching the world unfold and develop. If I can't, I've already lost some interest.

I lose more interest because of Brooks' writing style. Rather than reveal characters and back story organically, Brooks spends pages and pages just telling you what's happened to everyone previously and how they feel about it. It's vital information, so you can't just skip over it, but it's so... boring! When Nest arrives at Sinnissippi Park - a major setting for the novel, but one that Nest has conceivably visited every day of her life - Brooks has her pause and stare at it for a while so he can fill us in on the creatures that live there. Another time, he wastes a paragraph on Nest's remorse about letting a screen door slam. The book's full of this kind of stuff, but it's not just Running with the Demon. Brooks does the same thing in the other books of his that I've read. That's his style.

There's a big part of me that wants to know what happens to Nest (and that guy from the prologue). There's also an actual demon living in Hopewell and stirring up trouble. Unlike Airborn, I'm genuinely curious about what's going to happen. And I'm especially curious to see how it eventually connects with the adventures of the Shannara family with all their swords, elfstones, and wishsongs.

But if I'm counting correctly, Brooks has written twenty Shannara novels so far. That's a major commitment for someone who reads as - let's be kind - "leisurely" as I do. Do I really want to force myself through all of Brooks' exposition to get that whole story? Or would I be better served by just reading the Wikipedia summaries to satisfy my curiosity about the connections? The answer to that came from Bad Monkeys.

See, when I got to page 100 of Bad Monkeys there was no question about whether or not I was going to keep at it. It wasn't a Good book. It was Awesome. And that's the way it should be. If a book is worth reading, shouldn't you be genuinely excited to keep going no matter what page you're on? Bad Monkeys reminded me of what reading is supposed to be like.

So here's the new rule. When I get to page 100, I have to answer the following question. Am I more excited about finishing this book or starting the next one in my pile? It's so simple really. I don't know why I haven't thought of it in those terms before.

And using that criteria, Running with the Demon fails. I'd much rather start my next book. It's about Valkyries and Ragnarok.
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