The Filaments of Fiction: Aidan Moher on The Sword of Shannara


Cover detail from Terry Brooks’ The Sword of Shannara

No matter how deep I dig into the memories of my childhood, I’ve never unearthed my origins as a writer. I’ve been telling stories since I could talk, and recording them since I was able to write. Always with half-a-foot in this world, and half-a-foot in another, it’s felt like a right and an obligation to pass along the tales and adventures that I’m privy to—those that are unique to me. I spend time wandering those worlds in my head, and, like a cartographer or anthropologist, my duty is to record what I find.

However, my origins as a fantasy and science fiction writer are much easier to trace. I started reading genre fiction early on—and writing it, too. I wrote a sequel to Stephen King’s Pet Semetary in grade four (despite never having read the book or seeing the film). Going back even further, I still have a copy of a psychedelic fantasy starring a caterpillar (I must’ve recently watched Disney’s Alice in Wonderland) that begins and ends in the course of two pages, which I think I wrote when I was in grade one or two. I grew up reading Tom Swift, moved onto Michael Crichton (I still remember trying frantically to finish reading Jurassic Park as the lights in the theatre went down), and then, like so many others, onto J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and then Terry Brooks. At this point I was 11 or 12, and starting to enter the most impressionable years of my life. No surprise, my writing started to follow suit.

Growing up, I was mostly a science fiction kid. I liked technology, space, the future. I thought fantasy was immature—full of toads, unicorns, damsels in distress, etc. To my surprise, Tolkien was so far above and beyond that. My pre-adolescent mind was blown, and I flung myself head-first into fantasy. I haven’t looked back since.

Tolkien introduced me to fantasy, but it was Terry Brooks’ legendary debut novel, The Sword of Shannara, that caused my newfound appreciation for the genre to transform into a lifetime obsession. Where Lord of the Rings wowed me with its scope, The Sword of Shannara welcomed me with its accessibility and warmth. As a twelve year old, Shea and Flick were easier for me to relate to than Frodo and Sam—it felt more like traveling alongside companions, something that was happening to me, where Lord of the Rings felt like a historical account. Brooks (admittedly) lifted the general framework for his novel directly from Tolkien (who himself borrowed liberally from authors and poets who came before), but built from it something that was absolutely perfect for a ravenous pre-teen looking to continue the adventures he’d had in Middle-earth. See, I didn’t want something new. As I’ve grown older, that’s changed somewhat, and I value originality more than I used to, but as a kid, I was desperate to recapture the feeling I’d had while reading Lord of the Rings. Brooks managed that and more.

Best of all? Once I finished The Sword of Shannara, which itself felt almost as long as all three volumes of Lord of the Rings, there were several more books in the series available right in my mother’s library! So, I was able to piggyback from Shea, Flick, and Allanon’s fight against the Warlock Lord, right into Wil Ohmsford and Amberle Elessedil’s search for the Bloodfire in The Elfstones of Shannara. The Four Lands exploded in scope, and I was eager to explore its every corner. Twenty years later, I’m still at it. The Four Lands remains one of my dearest vacation spots, and I keep up with every new Shannara book as soon as it hits bookstores.

No surprise, the impact that The Sword of Shannara had on me as a reader trickled into my habits as a writer with the force of Niagara Falls. Suddenly I was conceptualizing new worlds, filling them with Elves and magical relics, instead of rayguns and spaceships. To this day, Brooks’ style of adventurous fantasy—built on great set pieces, magic with a cost, approachable characters, and terrifying villains—remains a huge source of inspiration when I sit down to write. You’ll see that in my upcoming short story, “The Red-rimmed Eyes of Tóu Mǎ,” which you can read in Unfettered II, alongside other great authors like Bradley P. Beaulieu, Seanan McGuire, Jim Butcher, Naomi Novik, and … *drumroll* … none other than Terry Brooks! It’s funny how life works out sometimes.

(For more on The Sword of Shannara and how it shaped me as a reader and a writer, see my article, How Terry Brooks Saved Epic Fantasy.)