Saturday, December 5, 2015

Wizard's First Rule Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Terry Goodkind
Publisher: Tor Books
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Sword of Truth Book One
Pages: 848

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I’ve had a soft spot for those lengthy fantasy epics.  Before I get to reading them, I do some brief skimming on the interwebs over whether the whole series is worth the time. Reading these opinions, a common trend emerges: the series starts out great before it begins to fall off in quality.  I read these things about The Wheel of Time before I started those books, A Song of Ice and Fire before I started those books, and The Malazan Books of the Fallen before I started those books.  To a certain extent the “decay over time sentiment” is true for all those series’, but I would still say I had an enjoyable reading experience.

So when I began to skim over what people thought about the The Sword of Truth not to my surprise I saw the same thing.  Yet not even a quarter of the way through Wizards First Rule (the first book in the series), I knew I didn’t like it, and by half way through, I wasn’t sure I was going to finish it.  I tend to get obsessive compulsive about finishing a book – no matter how bad it is – and that trait kicked in. I made it to the end, my internal subconscious screaming at me the whole way.  I’ve read a lot of books in my life, and there have been a fair few that I’ve hated, but I don’t even think the words that follow will do justice to just how bad the writing, plot, character development, themes, and all around arrogance that tells this story is.  If you were to ask me today what’s the worst book you’ve read, I’d say Wizard’s First Rule without thinking twice.

I would expect to hear “that can’t be true” or “have you heard of Robert Stanek or Robert Newcomb?” To answer the former, I’d say it’s the worst when compared with material that’s currently being published by major publishers.  To answer the latter I’ve heard of Stanek, who’s notorious for being accused of padding his Amazon page with fake reviews, and Newcomb who’s famous for his publisher dropping him for writing one of the most blatantly sexist fantasy books ever, but I would never waste a second of my time reading something that’s so notoriously bad. That being said, I might be overstepping when I say Wizard’s First Rule is the worst book ever, – after all it’s followed by ten other books, which even Goodkind’s admirers say progressively get worse – but I still feel it’s within reason to say it.

Major spoilers from Wizard’s First Rule are scattered below, avoid if you want to read Terry Goodkind’s books … but honestly you shouldn’t.

The plot revolves around forest guide Richard Cypher who comes across a mysterious woman named Khalan whom he helps fight off four assassins that are pursuing her.  Shortly after he learns he’s the Seeker and that he is destined to oppose a powerful magical tyrant named Darken Raul.

Accompanied by Khalan and the wizard Zed, Richard embarks on a quest to prevent Raul from acquiring three magical boxes that will allow him to take over the world.

Where to begin … especially after that plot summary?

I’m going to start by talking about Ayn Rand and Objectivism.  Ayn Rand was a writer in the mid/latter half of the 20th century who was famous for writing books like Atlas Shrugged and the Fountain Head. She’s also known for incorporating her own personal philosophy called Objectivism into her stories. Terry Goodkind is a fan of this philosophy and what he’s attempted to do is create a fantasy surrounding it … because apparently coming up with his own ideas was a bit too difficult?… which is a kind of a running theme in the author’s work.

There are a number of ideas that make up Objectivism, but the two Objectivist ideas Goodkind primarily focuses on in this novel are:
  1. Achieving Objective thought by forming concepts, oftentimes using inductive logic (logic that uses strong evidence, but doesn’t have conclusive proof).
  2. Putting yourself before others, and by that Objectivism states the moral purpose of a person is to find happiness in one’s life before they find it in the lives of others.
Generally speaking there is a lot of truth to Objectivist ideas. Putting your personal happiness first is usually beneficial not only to yourself but to everyone else as well. Putting yourself before the needs of other people all the time will likely result in damaging a lot of your personal relationships. The point being, Objectivism and it’s ideas are very situational, and are really only beneficial depending on the context.

Richard, Khalan, and Zed each adhere to these Objectivist ideas and oftentimes, and very distastefully, they oblige the reader with lengthy diatribes on why their oftentimes atrocious actions are justifiable. Goodkind uses this quote to basically validate the “goodness” of his protagonists’ poor behavior:
“People are stupid. They will believe a lie because they want to believe it’s true, or because they are afraid it might be true.”
This is an incredibly cynical worldview, and I will guiltily admit – and I’m sure most people would too – that I’ve had this idea run through my head on occasion.  Of course I never wrote a lengthy philosophical novel trying to justify the shitty things I’ve done to people when that mindset kicked in either. Trying to justify everything is really where this story errors.  In modern fantasy it’s become a lot more commonplace to have morally ambiguous characters.  The characters from A Song of Ice and Fire, The First Law Trilogy, The Broken Empire Trilogy, etc. etc. are all loaded with morally ambiguous characters, many of which aren’t likeable, and that’s ok.  The authors of these series’ DON’T try to justify the actions of all their characters.  They let the reader decide whether a character is an asshole or not. Goodkind does not do this.  Instead he crams his ideas and justifications down your throat, while  providing the perfect example of why writers are supposed to “show” and not “tell” readers what they think.

Of course being a novel that uses a lot of philosophy; arguments and justification should be commonplace.  As I mentioned before the ideas that Goodkind wishes to argue are often voiced by his protagonists – Richard, Khalan, and Zed.  It would only be fitting to have another character argue against them to prove the validity of the protagonists arguments.  Normally an author will chose valid points or create another protagonist or ambiguous character with a differing view point.  Instead Goodkind uses his antagonist Raul to do this. Raul is made out to be one of the most despicable humans you could imagine. He endorses the rape and molestation of children and he practices cannibalism (Karl was a tasty young child, wasn’t he Darken Raul).

The point isn’t Raul’s actions are distasteful – they most certainly are – but the argument AGAINST Objectivist ideas in this book are coming from a child eating lunatic.  At this point it doesn’t even matter what the argument is, no person in their right mind would ever agree with a person that thinks it’s ok to molest and eat children.  Thus Objectivism wins. Goodkind is forcing readers to agree with his ideas, by essentially having them compared to something that is so horrible that there is no choice but to agree with them.  That makes for a terrible entreaty in philosophical thought.

From there it only gets worse, just look at the plot.  There are so many derivative and unoriginal moments that are tossed in this book, almost all of which are poorly disguised.
  • Richard and Zed face down an angry mob by guilt tripping them with their personal knowledge and relationships.
    • Idea taken from To Kill A Mockingbird when Scout faces the lynchers threatening Atticus and Tom
  • Darken Raul needs a magical object to take over the world
    • Idea taken from Lord of the Rings when Sauron needs the Ring of Power to control Middle Earth again.
  • A Wizard guides the protagonists through a dangerous land
    • A common fantasy trope, although Zed mostly reminds me of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings.
  • Samuel is a former Seeker who’s addicted to the Sword of Truth.
    • Idea taken from Lord of the Rings where Gollum’s addicted to the Ring of Power.  Goodkind even goes as far as adding in a similar dialect to the one Tolkien used for Gollum
  • Abby is an old crone with sage advice
    • Another common fantasy trope, but her speech patterns and goofy temperament resemble Yoda from The Empire Strikes Back.
  • Darken Raul is Richard’s father
    • The bad guy turns out to be the good guy’s father. I’m again reminded of The Empire Strikes Back.
  • Richard Cypher is an ordinary peasant who goes on to do great things
    • While this resemble a lot of fantasy tropes especially those established in Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, Cypher more often than not reminds me of Rand al’ Thor from The Wheel of Time.
  • Mord-Siths, Raul’s most powerful servants.
    • A combination of Sith Lords from Star Wars and Nazgul from Lord of the Rings.  Tolkien and Lucas at least were smart enough not to make their most evil servants dominatrixes.
  • People born as Confessors (a magical class in the books) are separated by gender, with males being hunted down at birth before they inflict their powerful madness on the world.
    • Idea taken from The Wheel of Time pretty much verbatim. They’re called Aes Sedai and Asha’man though.
It’s true that most creative decisions are derivative, but that’s a pretty extensive list for one book, and a lot of it gets too specific for my taste. When Goodkind isn’t stealing ideas he’s making utterly ignorant, absurd, and even hypocritical plots that I can only describe as baffling. Some instances are listed below:
  • Despite being a Woods Guide his whole life, the second Richard is given the Sword of Truth he immediately knows how to use a sword … like he’s been training with one all his life.
  • Khalan is able to magically bind people to her will and control every action in that person’s life forthwith.  Richard is able to circumvent this because he’s “in love” with her.  Like for “real in love” with her.
  • Khalan’s magical binding of people is her “big secret” in the book.  When it’s time for her to first reveal this to Richard, she finds that she can’t and instead opts out via a number of failed suicide attempts forcing Richard to go on suicide watch.
  • Richard helps Khalan defeat a Quad, which is a group of four deadly assassins.  Khalan does most of the heavy lifting in this fight, but later she’s only faced with one wounded Quad member, so she requires Richard to save her.
  • Richard and Khalan come across a tribal group of people called the Mud People … and what follows is some of the worst “white people know better” segments I’ve seen in a book.
  • Richard often yells and threatens the Mud People. At one point he violently assaults their leader, which of course earns him the respect of their tribe.
  • Richard, Khalan, and Zed always vow to stay with each other until the quest is complete.  Yet they frequently seem to separate.  The worst instance of this occurs after they recover the box and Richard has to go back and get a potentially deadly spell removed from his body.  Khalan and Zed don’t go with him after some weak reasoning by Richard, which conveniently allows Raul to capture him.
  • Richard is tortured for hundreds of pages, and I’m not kidding when I say hundreds of pages, by a Mord-Sith named Denna.  Denna is a dominatrix whom Richard learns to call “mistress.”
  • At one point Denna tries to teach a cruel eight year old princess how to torture people. Richard begs Denna not to do this, saying teaching torture isn’t right for a child. A few minutes later Richard drop kicks the Princess in the face and shatters her jaw.
  • Denna eventually falls in love with Richard because he tried to save her from “feeling pain.” Richard also admits to romantic feelings for Denna (a sort of Stockhom Syndrome?) despite being raped, stabbed, and beaten by her constantly. In order to get away from Raul’s palace he knows he needs to kill her, so in a romantic and heartfelt scene he stabs her in the heart with her Agiel.
  • Khalan takes a confession from an innocent man named Brofie.  To set wrong right she magically transforms him into a wolf, which is the form he’s now stuck in for the rest of his life.
  • Richard convinces Darken Raul’s dragon Scarlett to help him because he speaks “the truth.”
  • Despite having captured Richard, and securing the box, Raul decides to “let Richard go for a week” just because.
  • In order for Raul to gain world dominating powers he needs to possess all three of the boxes and he needs to open the right one.  Richard is the only person who knows what the right box to open is.  He tells Raul which box to open, and he does.
There’s probably more, but that’s just off the top of my head.  The prose has idiosyncrasies and redundancies galore. Word overuse is a big problem.  I can’t even count how many times Goodkind uses the words aghast, astonished, thunderstruck, roared, thing, and moral clarity.  A lot of these words are extremes – like thunderstruck and aghast and astonished – which are oftentimes used by characters as reactions to learning minor bits of new information.  At one point in the story Goodkind even refers to the world as Earth, not like the dirt earth, but actual Earth.  I was pretty sure this story doesn’t take place on Earth?

The first question that kept coming to my mind while reading all of this was: what kind of person writes a book like this?

It’s a question I asked myself often, and I wasn’t surprised by what I found.  Below is a video of Terry Goodkind doing a promo for one of his newer Sword of Truth books and another is a written interview.

Terry Goodkind USA Today Interview

Needless to say Terry Goodkind isn’t the best with PR.

I can’t say I’m going to read another book by Terry Goodkind, but curiosity got the best of me and I read about a few of the other adventures Richard and company go on in later books and it sounds like it gets a lot worse.  A few standouts include Khalan deciding to battle an evil chicken, and another – and my personal favorite that I’ve found so far – features Richard killing a bunch of pacifist civilians for not agreeing with his ideas.  That hilarious and/or frightening scene is quoted below:
” A plump, curly-haired woman took a step out from the others. Her round face was red with anger as she screamed. “Stop the hate! No war! Stop the hate! No war!”
“Move or die!” Richard yelled as he picked up speed.
The red-faced woman shook her fleshy fist at Richard and his men, leading an angry chant. “Murderers! Murderers! Murderers!”
On his way past her, gritting his teeth as he screamed with the fury of the attack begun, Richard took a powerful swing, lopping off the woman’s head and upraised arm. Strings of blood and gore splashed across the faces behind her even as some still chanted their empty words. The head and loose arm tumbled through the crowd. A man mad the mistake of reaching for Richard’s weapon, and took the full weight of a charging thrust.
Men behind Richard hit the line of evil’s guardians with unrestrained violence. People armed only with their hatred for moral clarity fell bloodied, terribly injured, and dead. The line of people collapsed before the merciless charge. Some of the people, screaming their contempt, used their fists to attack Richard’s men. They were met with swift and deadly steel.”
Sword of Truth was highly sought after by publishers when it first came out, and was eventually sold to Tor for $275,000, a record for a first time fantasy author.  Since its 1994 release, The Sword of Truth series has sold over 25 million copies.  I don’t understand how this series could be so successful.

Two years of regularly writing reviews on this site and neither I nor my writing partner have ever given a film, book, video game, comic, or tv show a full 0 rating… until now.  This is a rating that’s for a work that’s meant to be lost in the furthest depths of hell, but Wizard’s First Rule certainly deserves it.

Score: 0.0

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