Running with the Demon Terry Brooks (Little, Brown, £16.99, 420 pages, hardcover; published October 1997. Paperback published by Orbit, £5.99, 503 pages, August 1998.)
With Running with the Demon Terry Brooks makes an attempt to step outside the boundaries of his over-familiar territories of Shannara and Landover and plough some new furrows. He makes things difficult for himself, however, by encroaching into the equally well-farmed domain of horror and dark fantasy writers like Stephen King and Charles De Lint.
Brooks' smooth writing style and credible character building make this book an easy read as he introduces you to the inhabitants of Hopewell, Illinois, a small town in the grip of a long-lasting and bitter strike at the town's main employer, a steel mill. The story revolves around the Freemark family, 14-year old Nest Freemark in particular, who lives with her grandparents, Evelyn and Robert, a retired steelworker. Into their lives comes the mysterious John Ross, claiming to be a former friend of Nest's dead mother. But John Ross is more than he claims to be, for he is a Knight of the Word with a staff of power, and he is pursuing a demon of the Void, and the demon seems to have more than a passing interest in both Hopewell and the Freemark family.
As the story unravels the mystery of the Freemarks, especially the magical powers of Nest Freemark, Brooks does a good job of spinning the reader along. Slowly, the demon's machinations trap Nest in a tightening web of circumstances, stripping her of the support of the people around her. Eventually, all that stands between her and the demon is John Ross and the mysterious Wraith who guards her in the woods of Sinnissippi Park. And Nest is unsure of the loyalties of the pair of them.
Having set up a fine and interesting scenario for a dark fantasy, all Brooks had to do was come up with a defining ending that did it justice. Unfortunately, he falls at the last hurdle, providing a limp and predictable ending which disappoints. Running with the Demon is ultimately let down by that lack of bite, as Brooks' limited imagination fails to come up with a fitting climax. Had he done so, the book could have enhanced Brooks' jaded reputation, but instead it reinforces the impression of a writer both limited and derivative in imagination. Had this book been marketed as a juvenile, it might very well have passed muster. When pitched against the tougher competition of the adult genre, it comes up well short of the leaders in the field, whose creations would eat Brooks' demon for breakfast.
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© John D Owen 26 December 1997