Let me make one thing clear at the outset: the only book in the Sword of Truth series that I have read is the first one, Wizard’s First Rule. This review of the ‘series’ is therefore based entirely on my own limited experience of the author Terry Goodkind’s work. I say this because it may well be the case that the other books that make up the Sword of Truth are entirely different from Wizard’s First Rule – it may be but somehow I doubt it very much. You see, Wizard’s First Rule is not just a book that I don’t like, it is one that I positively detest. I’ve been reading fantasy of one kind or another all my life and Goodkind’s debut novel is almost certainly the worst book that I have ever read in its entirety. In fact, the only reason that I finished it at all was because of all the positive reviews I had read beforehand, all of the word of mouth that insisted that Goodkind was better than Tolkien, Jordan, Martin, Hobb and any other fantasy author you might care to mention. I was sure that, no matter how bad it got, the book must have some redeeming feature. Unfortunately, I was wrong. For years I kept my thoughts on Goodkind’s work to myself but slowly I began to realise that I was by no means alone – take a look at an Amazon review of any of his books to see how he polarises fantasy readers. There is undoubtedly a large contingent who are devoted fans of the Sword of Truth, but equally there are rather a lot of people out there who feel as I do. The logical question you might be asking at this point, then, is what exactly is my problem?
The Sword of Truth is a series of thirteen epic fantasy novels which follow the protagonists Richard Rahl, Kahlan Amnell and Zeddicus Zu’l Zorander on their quest to vanquish various wicked foes. While each novel was written to stand alone (except for the final three), they follow a common timeline and are linked by ongoing events that occur throughout the series. The series began in 1994 and, as of this year, over 25 million copies of the series’ books have been sold worldwide. The Sword of Truth also inspired a short-lived but popular television series, entitled Legend of the Seeker. Despite its unarguable success, Goodkind’s series has also been dogged by negativity almost from the outset. The series has been described by some critics as having an inconsistent background that was reinvented and expanded in each new book, while his heroes have been criticised as lacking depth, with a confusing morality that has them at times performing acts every bit as heinous as those of the villains, sometimes with no apparent justification. Even more objectionable, to many, are the series’ perverse sexual undertones, with numerous sadomasochistic scenes described in often excruciating detail. Some of Goodkind’s political views have also provoked controversy but I’m not going anywhere near that in this article!
Limiting my critique purely to Goodkind’s abilities as a writer and world-builder, there is an awful lot about the Sword of Truth that I just don’t like at all. In the first novel in the series Goodkind commits just about every cardinal sin that it is possible for a fantasy writer to make, and unwittingly demonstrates just exactly why the genre as a whole has consistently failed to command mainstream respect. Wizard’s First Rule has it all: cardboard cut-out characters; a highly-derivative, cliche-ridden story; a ridiculously-maniacal-plot-to-take-over-the-world; and a baddy complete with a silly name, dubious motivations and mommy issues (I made up the last part). The funny thing is, I wouldn’t necessarily highlight these facts as a negative, since they are after all staples of most the genre. It’s the mish-mash of all these aspects of the fantasy genre without form or focus, the lazy writing and poor plotting, ultimately just the downright banality of it all, that made reading Wizard’s First Rule a deeply regrettable, almost soul-destroying experience for me. Add to that the fact that the novel suffers from my pet gripe in fantasy, poor editing (750 pages stretched out with a sorry excuse for a ‘plot’ that would have struggled to fill a third of that) and you can begin to see what my issue with Goodkind is. Perhaps the most unfortunate part of all is that, with its workmanlike prose, endless cliches, inane philosophy, and inconsistent world-building, Wizard’s First Rule might just about have made a passable attempt at a children’s novel or role-playing game adaptation. To aim it at ‘adults’, however, stretches the term way past breaking point.
So, is there anything good that can be said about Wizard’s First Rule? Goodkind does have a couple of good ideas, most notably the Confessors, who can inspire permanent devotion with a touch, but many of his other creations are too overly derivative to make much of an impression. As several people have noted before, it amazes me that Goodkind hasn’t yet been sued for breach of copyright by at least a dozen fantasy authors out there. There are clueless heroes, mysterious ladies, generic medieval villages, eccentric wizards, enchanted swords, Gollum clones, evil dark lords, and even, in the ultimate example of a rip-off, a Darth Vader-Luke Skywalker ‘who’s the daddy?’ moment. Of course, numerous successful fantasy authors have risen above the shackles of the genre, compensating for the lack of originality in well-mined concepts with the quality of their writing and the conviction of their plotting. However, Goodkind’s laughably bad writing can’t even compensate for the simplistic plotting. Despite his best efforts, he’s no good at description and the inanity of his dialogue is only matched by the one-dimensional nature of his characterisations. All of this might almost have been forgivable if Goodkind had been writing a Pratchett-like spoof or satire (albeit with less than a tenth of Sir Terry’s talent). The trouble is that Goodkind is in deadly earnest. Needless to say I cannot in all good conscience suggest that any fantasy readers out there spend any of their well-earned cash on the Sword of Truth but I would be interested to hear from anyone who is a fan of the series. After all, the man has sold over 25 million copies of his books so he must be doing something right!