I suppose it was inevitable, but Temple of the Winds, the fourth in Terry Goodkind's massive fantasy opus The Sword of Truth, shows that the series is starting to strain. Although Goodkind isn't (yet) merely going through the motions, as do so many of his colleagues once they get a good thing going out of which they can draw a regular paycheck, his story is undeniably no longer fresh. Additionally, Goodkind's excesses, which heretofore have always been kept to one degree or another in check so that they wouldn't overwhelm the story, are here allowed to run riot. This novel gives the phrase "over the top" a whole new dimension of meaning, and offers some of the grisliest fantasy storytelling to come down the pike in ages.
Many fantasy authors in the past have managed to create thrilling, tense, and involving stories set in worlds that, when all is said and done, evoke a genuine sense of wonder. They are places you might actually wish to visit. Tolkien's Middle-Earth, Lewis's Narnia, Cabell's Poictesme, Burroughs' Barsoom and Opar, Howard's Hyperborea, heck, even Xanth and Discworld if you're in the mood — the list is staggering. But Terry Goodkind's world has changed drastically since Stone of Tears. Scary to begin with, it's now pure hell, a neverending Grand Guignol charnel house of horror, warfare, death, disease, murder, death, horror, anguish, death, misery, and death. Oh yes, and rape — Temple of the Winds contains nearly as many scenes of sexual sadism and misogynistic violence as any of John Norman's infamous Gor novels. Goodkind's arch-villians make Hitler, Stalin and Ted Bundy look like Pokémon critters, which is pretty impressive when you consider the villians rarely appear in person in the novels at all. And it always falls upon the shoulders of two people — Richard and his beloved Kahlan — to stop the madness, and the only way they can do so is to suffer unimaginable torments and anguish themselves.
Sure, it's effective storytelling — any good author should put his heroes through the wringer. And as I mentioned, up to now Goodkind has struck a good balance. Previous volumes of this series are exhausting reading experiences, to be sure, but by the time you finish this one, you'll feel every bit as violated as the characters. Even horror gets dull and repetitive if it's overdone.
In this fourth adventure, set almost entirely in Aydindril, Richard, now Lord Rahl, and Kahlan are confronted by a devastating plague that, we learn, was brought into the world by the arch-evil Emperor Jagang of the Old World. The plague is a particularly insidious plot by Jagang to demolish Richard once and for all, since it is magical in origin (Jagang claims to want to rid the world of magic but seems only to happy to employ it to serve his own ends). Jagang has invoked what is known as a bent-fork prophecy, which puts Richard in a damned-no-matter-what-he-does position. The only way to stop the plague and save millions of lives is if he and Kahlan betray each other, effectively destroying them both.
Let it be known that I think it's a good thing for a writer to stick the knife in and give it a few hearty twists. Goodkind has done this kind of thing before and it's this unflinching approach to the emotional power of storytelling that has given this series, up to now, the edge it needs to rise above the chaff. Yet it is an approach that can easily get out of hand, and this time, Goodkind doesn't stop with a few twists. He doesn't even stop after he has more or less thoroughly eviscerated you. And he doesn't stop after he has stripped your bones. With Temple of the Winds, Terry Goodkind becomes high fantasy's Oliver Stone. Why use a stick when a sledgehammer will do? For that matter, why use a sledgehammer when a howitzer will do? It's doubly excruciating for the reader when you consider that you know it's all going to turn out all right, simply because that's how VLFN series novels work (and there is another volume after this one, so it figures), and so the lingering scenes of physical brutality and emotional laceration seem like sadism not simply on the part of Goodkind's villians but Goodkind as well. Intensity is fine, insanity is something else entirely.
And it seems that Goodkind's emphasis on the rough stuff caused him to be sloppier than usual in his plotting this time. There is more than one scene in which Goodkind writes himself out of a corner through some quick "author's convenience." Subplots involving supporting characters — many of whom who were brilliantly fleshed out in Blood of the Fold, only to be bumped back to also-ran status for this novel — either seem tacked on (what's up with the goofy attempts at comedy relief, trying to turn Ann and Zedd into Hope and Crosby?) or jar the mood and throw the novel's forward momentum into a tailspin. Another key element bombs rather spectacularly: there's a sleazy subplot involving a serial killer of prostitutes. His identity is almost eye-rollingly easy to guess, and yet when it is revealed, this character's transition from nice guy to mega-psycho is still so abrupt it'll give you whiplash.
Now, Goodkind certainly hasn't lost it completely. This novel is, on the whole, still readable, the final 200 pages in particular earning the coveted "can't put it down" prize. And there are scenes that earn their emotional responses honestly, not simply by ripping them from your guts. (To put it rather excessively myself.) Still, one is left with the impression that this is the turning point novel for this series. Exactly how many fans remain committed after this novel, without throwing up their hands in helplessness and shouting "Enough!", will determine just how much longer Goodkind can keep wielding this Sword. So far, sales-wise at least, things are still looking good for him. Maybe, after all, there's a part of us that likes it rough.