The Sword of Shannara, another book I first encountered because of my friend's mother's membership in the Science Fiction Book Club was Stephen R. Donaldson's Lord Foul's Bane, the first novel in "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever." Both books were first published in 1977 but could not be more unlike one another in my opinion. Whereas Brooks's book inaugurated the tendency of many contemporary fantasy authors to ape Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings to varying degrees, Donaldson's inaugurated an opposite tendency: to reject Tolkien's world, or at least the worldview communicated through it.
Interestingly, Lord Foul's Bane takes much from older approaches to fantasy. Its focus character, Thomas Covenant, is a man from "the real world" who, by means of a car accident that leaves him in a coma, finds himself inexplicably transported to another reality known only as "the Land." In our world, Covenant is a writer who contracted leprosy, which costs him not only two fingers on his right hand, but also his family, his career and indeed his connection to other human beings, as he becomes increasingly bitter and reclusive. Covenant's mysterious journey to the Land is reminiscent in many ways of other dreaming heroes, such as Burroughs's John Carter and Lovecraft's Randolph Carter, among others, which leads one to wonder, as Covenant himself does, whether the Land is a real place or merely a figment of his imagination.
Once in the Land, Covenant discovers that he has been summoned by means of a potent magical artifact called the Staff of Law by a being known as Drool Rockworm. Drool is a "cavewight," a pathetic evil creature who intends to use the Staff to bring doom to the Land. However, another evil being, who calls himself Lord Foul the Despiser, tells Covenant that, if Drool is stopped, the Land can be saved -- for a time. Ultimately, Foul explains, nothing can stop him from destroying the Land, but that destruction is some decades hence. He then tasks Covenant with delivering this information to the Council of Lords located in a place called Revelstone and sends him elsewhere in the Land to begin his journey.
After being transported, Covenant encounters a young woman named Lena, who, upon seeing his loss of two fingers, believes him to be the second coming of an ancient hero called Berek Halfhand. This notion is reinforced by the fact that Covenant where's a wedding band of white gold, that metal being seen as mystically significant in the Land. Lena heals Covenant of his injuries through the use of a magical earth called hurtloam, which cures his leprosy. This turn of events only further convinces Covenant that the Land is not real but rather a delusion of some sort.
It's at this point in the book where Lord Foul's Bane takes a turn that many readers, quite understandably, find too difficult to bear. As a consequence of the curing of his leprosy and of his growing certainty that the Land cannot be real, Covenant rapes Lena. This act firmly cements Covenant's status as an antihero unlike most in mainstream fantasy and has spelled the end of untold readers' attempts to make it through this book. Before the rape, Covenant was already a miserable, self-centered, and unlikeable character. His violence against Lena, who not only had helped him but also trusted him, turns him into a nigh-villain and it is difficult to see him in a heroic light. That was clearly Donaldson's intention, but I can't say that makes it an easier to take.
The remainder of Lord Foul's Bane is, in my opinion, a fairly mediocre book set in a very interesting world. The Land is a fascinating place, full of intriguing people and places, even if it does suffer a bit in the nomenclature department. Donaldson seems overly fond of either obvious names (the aforementioned Drool and Lord Foul) or goofy compounds (like Foamfollower) that don't really do a service to the setting he's constructed. Likewise, Thomas Covenant is so relentlessly off-putting that it makes it difficult to keep reading the book. Even when he's not being a jerk, he's self-pitying and self-absorbed, to the point where it's almost impossible to care about him as a protagonist, a situation that does improve somewhat in later books in the series, but I can hardly blame anyone who never made it that far. Even given its limited virtues, I'm not sure I can honestly say that someone who hasn't read this book has missed out on anything, except perhaps one of the wellsprings of contemporary "edgy" fantasy.