Parallel lives 

Brooks mixes magic with the real world

Though he had always written stories, best-selling fantasy author Terry Brooks didn't always write about magical lands and vicious dragons. The writer's youthful "experiments," as he calls them, were all over the literary map, from adventure tales in high school to "mopey romances about a boy, a girl and a dog" in college. But he never finished a story; he always lost interest.

click to enlarge At age 40, fantasy author Terry Brooks left his law practice behind to start writing novels full-time. His best-selling Landover series is based, in part, on his first career.
  • At age 40, fantasy author Terry Brooks left his law practice behind to start writing novels full-time. His best-selling Landover series is based, in part, on his first career.

Then, one day, Brooks started an epic fantasy tale and found something he could stick with. The Sword of Shannara, his initial attempt at fantasy, became the first published volume of a hugely popular and still continuing series.

This was 1977, the same year Star Wars hit theaters—we'll get back to Brooks' involvement in that mega-franchise in a minute—and for the next seven years, Brooks divided his time between his law practice and the continuing saga of Shannara. Then something like this happened:

The lawyer, now 40 years of age, was at a turning point in his life. He knew he couldn't continue balancing both careers, yet he feared the consequences of the decision he was about to make: to leave the practice behind, move away to a fantasy land called Landover, become its king, and rule it as well as he could in the face of opposition from nasty witches, evil trolls and snotty noblemen.

Oh, wait. That was Brooks' protagonist, Ben Holiday. Brooks, at 40, left his law practice behind, moved away to Seattle, and wrote Magic Kingdom for Sale—Sold!

The Magic Kingdom of Landover series, unlike Shannara, is grounded in the mundane. Ben Holiday is a real-world lawyer with real-world concerns. He purchases the fantasy kingdom that will become the center of action after seeing it advertised in a department store catalog. He worries about the kingdom being worth the purchase price, and about the fate of his abandoned stocks and bonds, even while fighting demons and contending with fairies.

The juxtaposition of the two worlds, separate but equally real, produces some very funny moments and renders the make-believe world a bit more accessible to the average reader. In the first Landover book, our hero is wonderfully human—so apparently ordinary and fallible, in fact, that his magical subjects refuse to acknowledge his sovereignty. The world-weary Ben Holiday at first meets this challenge with his intellect and his courtroom skills, and many early passages read more like a detective story than a dragon-slaying epic.

Finally Holiday discovers that he can only succeed through the reserves of honor and kingly strength that lie in his heart. By the time Holiday accepts the logic of the fantasy genre, the reader is way ahead of him.

Brooks will be the first to tell you that the Magic Kingdom of Landover series has always been a repository for his own experiences, a metaphorical ground on which to explore issues close to home. The newest installment is no exception. A Princess of Landover concerns Holiday's half-sylph daughter, Mistaya, a creature whose ease with magic has made her life a bit too easy for Holiday's comfort. Worried that he might be spoiling his daughter (and perhaps dismayed with the lack of formal education in a feudal fantasy kingdom), the king sends his princess to a real-world prep school, sans magic. Mistaya is not pleased with the arrangement, but she's a good kid at heart. Unfortunately, the headmistress doesn't share that view. The rebellious princess gets herself suspended, and the adventure begins.

Brooks raised a large family and claims now to be surrounded by women, with only a single male grandson to add a bit of balance, so the concerns of teenage girls are not far from his mind.

"It did happen to one of my kids," he says, referring to suspension, not magical journeys. The memory of that crisis has clearly not faded.

The books and movies you fall in love with young always hold a certain magic, and this series allows readers to revive the original love affair with every new installment. Brooks' princess may attract a new generation of readers to Landover, but the series' long-time fans may be more interested in how Ben Holiday handles the situation. The familiar characters are the ones we love best.

For example, when asked about his favorite Star Wars character—I told you we'd get back to Star Wars—Brooks admits he has to go with Han Solo, despite the fact that Brooks wrote the book adaptation of Star Wars: Episode I The Phantom Menace (the one about Anakin.)

Brooks was a fan of Star Wars' director George Lucas, but he was initially resistant to the book offer. He says he didn't want to take on a "paint-by-numbers project." Luckily, Lucas was also a fan of Brooks and felt the same way. The book was to be a companion piece, not a duplicate of the movie. But Brooks admits he really didn't have much choice about taking the job.

"I have big Star Wars fans in this family. If I turned it down I could see my position eroding quickly," says Brooks, sounding a lot like King Ben Holiday.

Terry Brooks reads from a work in progress and signs copies of A Princess of Landover at Fact & Fiction, Wednesday, Sept. 9 at 7 PM.

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