Gawrsh. It's...big. Yessiree, there's no denying that you can't miss Terry Goodkind's Sword of Truth novels on your local bookstore shelves, if only for the fact that they're so goddamn huge that one copy of a Goodkind novel takes up the same rackspace as three or four novels by most anyone else. With this 820-page monster debut, Goodkind becomes the heavyweight champion of the VLFN sweepstakes, even out-Jordaning Robert Jordan in the effort to astonish potential readers with the utter enormity of his creation. The question of whether or not this sort of thing is just writerly machismo gone horribly overboard is perhaps best settled by a critical rumble in the alley. (Clearly James Frenkel is the most generous editor in the business in allowing his writers to indulge themselves this way.) The important issue at hand for us is: Do the merits of the story justify the length and the investment of time required by the reader? Pissed-off readers of this website already know how I would answer that question in Jordan's case. How does Goodkind fare?
Happily, I am able to say: much, much better than Jordan. Yes, this doorstopper of a novel is markedly flawed in several areas, and many of these flaws are due to both its extreme length as well as the routine mistakes one would reasonably expect a first-time novelist to make. While he won't win any awards for originality (to put it gently), Goodkind has created a quest fantasy that eschews the most obvious Tolkienian clichés, offers up its fair share of unexpected twists and turns, and, most importantly, features absorbing characters who, though archetypes, engage the reader both intellectually and emotionally.
Synopsis: Richard Cypher is a young man living in the Westlands, a magic-free area that exists peacefully apart from its easterly neighbors, the Midlands and D'Hara, by virtue of a mountain range shielded with a magical Boundary. Out one day scouring the woods for clues to his father's murder, he meets a young woman named Kahlan who is being stalked by four armed men. Richard helps her dispatch these mysterious assailants, and then she shocks him with the news that she has entered the Westlands from the Midlands, by crossing the supposedly impenetrable Boundary. It turns out, naturally, that evil is afoot to the east in the form of the charismatic D'Haran leader Darken Rahl. Rahl, like all dark lords, is seeking various magical thingys: the three boxes of Orden, which contain "a magic spawned from the earth, from life itself." He also wants the Book of Counted Shadows, because only one of the boxes will enable him actually to control the magic and use it to his ends and the Book tells which is which. (Another box would kill him if he opened it, and the third would even more drastically annihilate all life everywhere.)
Richard takes Kahlan to meet Zedd, a crusty old eccentric who, of course, turns out to have been a powerful mage who left his order in disgust over their inappropriate handling of the boxes of Orden. We learn that Richard's father was the one in possession of the Book of Counted Shadows, and that as a child Richard was made to commit the book to memory before his father burned it so its secrets wouldn't fall into the wrong hands. Zedd now presents Richard with the Sword of Truth and informs him he is the Seeker, a figure who, in times of insurmountable strife, emerges as a man of heroic stature who must use the magic of the sword and his own experience and independent judgment to find a solution and save the day. So there we go: the Hero's Journey, repackaged afresh.
These early scenes are the most problematic. Goodkind takes forever setting all this up for us and explaining in exhaustive detail everything I have sketchily summarized above. I think he overcomplicates it. There is much that is virtually incomprehensible and muddled and fails to become clear until much, much later in the novel. (In particular, the more Goodkind has Zedd explain what a Seeker is, the more confusing it becomes.) Then, scenes in which our heroes set out on their quest to find the last box of Orden (Rahl so far only has two) are unnecessarily protracted. All of which means that the first 250 or so pages are an endurance test of Jordanian proportions, and for a while I was about to shake my head in dismay that yet another gigantic bestselling VLFN series was turning out to be another follow-the-dots groaner.
Yet, right at around page 300, having gotten all of his setup out of the way, Goodkind unexpectedly kicks things into gear and, quite unlike Jordan, actually has his characters do interesting things. Action picks up, relationships are meaningfully developed. Most importantly, the reader is given a stake in the outcome, because unlike so many fantasy novelists, Goodkind isn't afraid of putting his characters through unspeakable hell after warming us up to them. Richard and Kahlan, but especially Richard, endure godawful hardship in their journey to stop Rahl from obtaining the last magic box. In fact, sensitive fantasy readers whose tastes run to pretty unicorns, damsels in Rapunzellian distress, and dashing heroes who effortlessly make mincemeat out of evil baddies all the while sporting a charming Kevin Sorbo smirk, will probably throw this book across the room in horror and speed-dial their therapists. Goodkind has a talent for honest-to-goodness suspense that seems alien to many fantasists, and as its story progresses, Wizard's First Rule often has a breathless pace that resembles the most entertaining of mainstream thrillers. There's also ample wit, and not much of the cloying childish humor present in a lot of fantasy today (vide Piers Anthony). When you find out what the "wizard's first rule" is, it's something of a subtle high point to the story, a genuine chuckle that means something because it's such a true observation of human nature. Indeed, this is a novel that is as much about human nature, and the way in which ordinary people must rise above themselves to endure hardship, as it is a traditional good-vs-evil quest epic.
Goodkind has a laudable knack for confounding your expectations. At one point (I don't want to say where because I just cannot spoil it), Richard ends up in the clutches of the astonishing Mistress Denna, a leather-clad "Mord-Sith". I think it's safe to say there's not a dominatrix living today, even in the most perverse dens of iniquity of Amsterdam or Pat Pong, with this woman's penchant for inflicting pain. Yet the way in which Goodkind builds Richard's relationship to her is so unexpected and yet works so beautifully, all the while propelling the novel's plot pell mell towards its conclusion, that it smacks of real inspiration. Sure, some readers will think the whole thing is just Goodkind's vicarious indulgence in some sort of personal BDSM fantasy — but that isn't to say it doesn't add a crackling tension, both dramatic and erotic, to the story.
There are problems of unevenness of tone, not surprising in a book this big. It is difficult at times to reconcile the novel's grisly scenes of sadism with some of its quainter and more traditional elements, such as talking wolves and dragons. And, though in most cases I admired Goodkind's handling of character, there were scenes I found uncomfortably manipulative, such as those in a subplot featuring an adorable little orphan named Rachel, and even in a few of the Mistress Danna passages. The violence gets a bit excessive after a certain point.
Also, you might very well wonder how a charismatic ruler with an unsubtle name like "Darken" could pull the wool over anybody....
But on the whole, this is a surprising, ambitious work of adult fantasy that amply rewards readers willing to ignore its size and shortcomings and give it a fair hearing. (If you don't see yourself granting those indulgences, stay far away.) At this point there's sufficient reason to hope that Goodkind will get better, and his Sword of Truth get sharper. And as a reviewer, it's always nice to be reminded of the Critic's First Rule: that just because many novels in a particular genre suck doesn't mean they all do.