My reading pile is so high and filled with awesome that one wonders why I waste time reading Goodkind, especially considering I’m a slow (but steady) reader that has yet a vast ground to cover before feeling satiated about what the genre has to offer. The reason is simply curiosity. Some writers are loved everywhere, some writers are niche, some bring controversy. In the blogs and forums I read Goodkind isn’t just considered an example of the worst, but also a receptacle of laughter and continuous mocking. The books as its fans. I read this book in parallel with Memories of Ice and The Colour in the Steel of KJ Parker. Quite different stuff in style and intent, meant to be, so that I could gleam better what makes all these writers different. Since I re-started reading fantasy and sci-fi, about a year and half ago, I tried to pick representative writers and books, vastly different one from the other. I do a lot of “research” (meaning reading plenty of reviews online and forum threads) before buying a book and, no matter what I plan, at the end I start reading the one that makes me more curious. In this case it felt a perfect companion (like their opposite) to the books I was reading, and I was curious to know how bad it was to deserve all that negative noise, and yet why it was also hugely successful with the larger public. The goal was to find a convincing answer to both questions.
I wasn’t even sure if I really wanted to stick with it from the first to the last page, I just wanted a sample. The fact that I arrived to the end is already a sign that I didn’t find it so horrid. Quite a page turner in fact. I’m not saying that I couldn’t put it down, but I had an easy time with it, more than with other, better books, and found myself reading further than the point I had decided to reach for that day. This due to a well-planned structure. Every chapter serves a particular purpose in a way similar to Jordan’s style, and every one chapter ends in a way that makes you curious about what happens next. Well balanced in all its parts. There isn’t any high peak in quality or particularly boring point. Mostly even with the exception of the last 100 pages, where all tensions vanishes and the plot comes to an end in quite a ridiculous way. Those last 100 pages are quite dreadful.
The whole beginning of the book instead went rather well. In fact I was writing on the forums that I was having an easy time reading it and that I considered it a relatively well written “young adult” fantasy novel, with the inclusion of some gruesome scenes. Well, that was before reaching the part with the PoV of the dark side. At that point isn’t a matter of violence and gore that aren’t suitable for younger readers, but scenes intended to be excessive. The problem of this book is that it takes itself way, way too seriously. So while it was working quite well as an accessible, easygoing and pleasant fantasy novel, it felt as if Goodkind started to add explicit violence and nasty themes only so that the book would have been taken seriously. As if he was marking the point and make sure he was going to be considered “adult”. Wannabe adult, but quite childish in truth. Childish and perverted at the same time.
Later on this point of view changed because while the book indeed has contrasting elements, it all brings back to one unitary view that then corresponds to a simplification of Ayn Rand philosophy. He didn’t just make parallels with themes, but also tried to replicate the reason behind the writing. Ayn Rand doesn’t write realistic characters, she writes only conceptual representations. She uses characters as precise embodiments of a concept, using them to explain this concept. They are descriptions of an intent, didactic. Means for an idea she wants to pass on. In the same way Goodkind creates characters, including main ones, more like archetypes than multi-faceted, complex figures. Slightly less conventional and already seen, as the archetypes aren’t typical of fantasy, but Ayn Rand archetypes (“The Queen’s tax collectors came and took most of my crops, they barely left enough to feed my family”). Richard, the seeker, doesn’t just acquire special powers because he becomes the seeker, but he actually becomes the seeker because he is already one. He already is the natural manifestation of the archetype itself. So he is chosen for the role, as a consequence.
This is both the weakness and strength. It’s quite obvious: if you don’t like when a whole book is meant to shove down your throat some strong ideology, then you’ll come to hate this book, because there’s really nothing “natural” or spontaneously going. It’s all driven to “mean”, from the first to the last page. On the other hand it quite works because while Rand’s principle aren’t smoothly working when dealing with real life, here the setting is serviceable and partial enough to be consistent with its intent. Fiction gives you that power, you can filter what you want and make sure your ideas work flawlessly. The simplification of Rand that Goodkind makes here works quite well and drives the story in an intriguing way. I mean, I hope you aren’t one who starts arguing at a book, because there’s A LOT to argue, plenty of brow-rising parts, but overall it works and exposes well some central themes, like the manipulation of masses. Even the “Wizard’s First Rule” is well explained and meaningful in the book. Sometimes Ayn Rand works, in most cases when it corresponds to a simpler concept: pragmatism. The concept of “truth” simplified in the book often corresponds to pragmatism, or what is true bared of opinions. There are situations where people behave absurdly (like the mob of people going against Richard, Khalan and Zed at the beginning), but it’s still fun to read and find out how the various situations are resolved. Most of the book is built showing an impossible dead end, only to have the characters, Richard mostly, find a way out. Without too many tricks, in fact. Just a good use of the simplified principles and some slight deus ex machina to nudge things this way and that.
For most readers this layer of morals and philosophy will probably go above their head. It’s not even that central. Central is the narrow point of view on Kalan and Richard, their relationship. That’s the hook thrown at the readers. Even here the main protagonist is an handsome, yet naive boy who lives in a corner of the world without surprises. Quite a good and typical role for identification. The disclosure of the magical, mythical, foreign world happens through the eyes of this boy, so easier for the writer to gently introduce themes and details, because Richard knows just as much as the readers. Vehicle for experiencing and awe. Add an attractive, mysterious, even scary girl and you have already a recipe for win. At least a large public type of win. The PoV only rarely moves away from the central duo, so it’s quite “zoomed in” and intimate. Another strength is the heavy use of redundancy. This is not a book where you risk to miss details. If there’s something slightly important then be sure it is going to be repeated over and over, and then again. It’s already chewed food. But it works well in the style of a page turner, where your attention is on the characters and their adventures. That’s why I think in the end it works well and is quite fun to read, while on the other hand it juggles with some themes. There is the clash some people perceive and that may increase with the later books, where, I’m told, the preaching prevails on the adventure.
Later in this book there’s an endless part that deals with torture and imprisonment. At the beginning it felt like a reference to Jordan’s second book, where Egwene is captured near the end of the book, but in this case there’s an excess of violence that is marked over and over, and even a much stronger presence of SM themes. So much that it makes you wonder. Goodkind makes absolutely sure that all the devious practices are exclusive of the bad guys, so he can point and put the blame on them and their evilness, but you wonder if in truth he enjoys these perversions in the end. Considering the increasing presence of these elements in the other books, the suspect is legit.
The part also made me think to “The Real Story”, first book by Stephen Donaldson in the Gap series. In this case the rape scene and theme is used to warn readers. It’s definitely not a book for everyone. Compared to Goodkind’s heavy handing it’s almost lightweight, but it’s way more unsettling even if it’s dealt less bluntly. In this case too Goodkind’s approach is more juvenile. “I’m bad, but ultimately good”. Versus the rape in the Gap series: “I’m bad, but if you look better, just gray”. Perverse, miserable and mean as most human beings. Amoral, filled with greed. So I think it’s the realism that makes the Gap case unsettling, while it quite doesn’t work the same in Goodkind. The tale is spoiled. First because you know where it goes, you know there will be the happy end. Second because there’s no real “letting the plot loose”. Goodkind follows solid principles, he uses the book as a way to exemplify them, as a representative model. The moral is shoved down your throat because the book is an example of it. A mean for the end. The gap is more ruthless. You don’t really know where it is going, the characters are less predictable. The writer explores a character the way it is, not the way he ought to be. There’s a sense of uncertainty. In Goodkind it’s the opposite. You know how it ends, you are just waiting to discover what trick is being used to win, and by the end there’s even atonement, so everything is being forgiven and put under a positive light. Coming out clean.
In fact that part is so overdone that I started to make parallels not anymore with Jordan’s Egwene, but with Jesus. Richard goes trough a kind of experience that is not unlike “the passion”. Just in this case what drives him forth is not love for god (that would be quite a betrayal of Rand’s atheism), but love for his gal. So the love story goes on, raised to dramatic heights. Even though there’s plenty to dislike in this part, I read it, surprisingly, with interest. The way out of the situation was unclear and, despite the incessant repetition of the same situations, I continued to read and probably faster than the rest of the book. In fact once that part is passed the rest feels even anticlimactic and the tension goes suddenly down. But then you are at those 100 page before the end, so you go on.
Now my curiosity is mostly quenched by what I read and I doubt I’ll move soon to the second book. There’s a short excerpt at the end of the book that was interesting and different from the rest, so it’s still possible I continue even if I don’t plan to. Everyone out there says that the more the series goes on, the more the flaws stick out. Not exactly a deterrent as I can be more interested in controversy than adventure, the part that was quite successfully executed in this book. I know now how Goodkind exposed his side to attacks because of the weird and dubious mix of themes and the simplified, juvenile approach to them. At the same time I also understand why this series is so successful around the world. It’s accessible, has a good pacing and easy for identification. Then there’s Drama. And true love, heroism, friendship. Hell, there’s even an almost-sex scene surprisingly well written (the one at the Mud people, not the one later). Sex scenes are usually the low point in books, this one was the high one. Incredible.
I had a good time with the book. It worked perfectly as an interlude between the denser Erikson and KJ Parker.
Every book should be enjoyed for what it is and nothing more. This one isn’t THAT bad.