Running With The Demon by Terry Brooks is an urban fantasy/fantasy thriller and the first novel in his Word and Void trilogy. It is the ninth novel set in his Shannara universe, though chronologically it is the first, the events in it taking place more than two thousand years before The Sword of Shannara which was his first novel.
The novel, which takes place over the Fourth of July weekend, tells the story of Nest Freemark, a fourteen-year-old girl being raised by her grandparents in the fictional town of Hopewell, Illinois (there really is such a place as Hopewell, IL., but this Hopewell is actually based on the city of Sterling, IL., Brooks’s hometown). Nest has a secret: she has the gift of magic. Along with the sylvan, Pick, and her mysterious protector, Wraith, she has to help maintain the balance between good and evil in Sinnissippi Park, one of the places on Earth where magic still resides.
But the balance is shifting. A servant of the Void, a demon, has come to Hopewell to sow disorder and mayhem. He is being pursued by John Ross, a Knight of the Word, a paladin gifted with magic of his own and only one goal – stop the demon at any cost necessary. Ross immediately seeks out Nest, as she will be crucial to the success of his plans. But Nest’s grandmother, also possessed of the magic and a former Caretaker of the park, doesn’t trust him.
As the demon’s plans start falling into place it becomes a race against time for Nest and John Ross to stop him, for should they fail the future of the Earth will be irrevocably changed.
This book was completely different from the previous Shannara novels which fall in the epic fantasy category. While still revolving around the battle between good and evil, here there were no quests and magic talismans, no nights camping under the stars or pages of description of people walking. While epic fantasies can take a while to get moving (like in the first Hobbit movie) here the tension and action started on page one and only built from there. While there are some dull moments, especially the long sections of backstory regarding John Ross, the pacing overall was very good and it was a tough book to put down, keeping me reading way past my bedtime several nights.
Nest is a very strong protagonist, but also realistic, with all the fears and insecurities any teenager faces further enhanced by her special abilities and the responsibility it entails. She is at once old for her years and a self-conscious teenager. The same is true for John Ross. Even though he is a paladin, a Knight of the Word, chosen to defend the Earth against evil, he is also a man, driven by fear and desperation as much as by his conviction and calling. He makes mistakes and lives every day in fear of the consequences of those mistakes.
The demon is obviously a force of pure evil, driven by his very nature, making him a frightening, if somewhat unengaging antagonist. But once again we can identify to some degree with the people being used by him, manipulated to do his work for him.
I liked the focus Brooks places on relationships in the novel. Nest is shown, not just through her own thoughts, but through the way she interacts with her friends and her grandparent and even with strangers. Her grandmother is the only major character we never get to see from her own point of view, but we get to know her still through her relationship with Nest and her husband. It becomes very clear how each character shapes the other, giving a high degree of realism to the story even as the characters fight demonic forces using magic.
Something else that adds to the realism is the setting. It quickly becomes clear as Nest moves through her environment that Brooks is “writing what he knows”. In his previous novels I have already noticed Brooks’s ability for writing vivid descriptions, and this fictionalised version of his home town is so detailed one can easily imagine oneself running with Nest through the woods of Sinnissippi park.
One thing I did not like (though I won’t go so far as to say I disliked it) is that Brooks seems to be developing a theology of sorts in this book. Nest’s grandfather is very religious and they go to church and the idea of God comes up naturally as Nest and Ross are facing a demon. But there’s also the idea of the Word and the Void, seemingly the true forces of good and evil behind creation – all the different versions of God and Satan on Earth merely our interpretations of these two forces.
Now, I have nothing against invented theology in fantasy – religion is an undeniable part of human existence no matter what the rationalists say and adding it to a story adds another layer of realism – but I prefer for a fantasy theology to exist in isolation, like the Ainur of Middle Earth or the various religions of Westeros. Adding another theology, and especially one based on magic, to all those we already have is just a bit too much for me. That said, Brooks’s depiction of the two worlds, the visible and the invisible to all but people like Nest, is very good and rather reminiscent of Frank Peretti’s two novels, This Present Darkness and Piercing the Darkness.
Underlying the story are also strong themes of morality and justice and, as with all his novels I’ve read so far, it also becomes clear that Brooks feels strongly about the environment and our responsibility towards it (much like Tolkien whom he has often been accused of copying). However, these themes do not dominate the story and you only really become aware of them once you start thinking about the story afterwards.
I thoroughly enjoyed Running With The Demon and can gladly recommend it. It is a novel that can be enjoyed by lovers of fantasy and thriller alike and is especially a good option if you’re a fan of one genre and thinking of trying something in the other. I would also recommend it for readers of epic and high fantasy who want to give urban fantasy a go. While it can be classified as young adult fantasy, with a teenage protagonist and simple enough language for younger readers to understand, it is also complex enough that adult readers will enjoy it without getting bored.
It was well worth the time spent reading it and I’m looking forward to starting the second part of the trilogy, A Knight Of The Word.