I realized that there is one author, at least, who I am totally competent to critique even without the benefits of having his books before me: Terry Goodkind. That’s because you don’t actually need to read The Sword of Truth series to understand what they’re about, you can just go type “libertarian porn” into google and you will probably get the same experience.
Okay, they’re not quite that bad. After all, I did read all of them, and at ~800 pages a pop times 11 novels, that’s 8,800 pages I bothered to get through. Admittedly, that was over the course of 12 years, beginning in seventh grade when I first picked them up because I got bored waiting for Robert Jordan to crank out his next book, and finally ending this past summer when I was studying for the bar, and therefore procrastinating with a Terry Goodkind novel was marginally less frustrating than the BarBri books I was actually supposed to be reading.
But in between the decent chunks of sword-and-sorcery fantasy in The Sword of Truth, Terry Goodkind seizes every possible opportunity to turn his characters into hoarse mouthpieces for the Libertarian War Against Communism. It’s kind of funny, the first dozen times it happens. And then it starts getting annoying, when you find yourself wondering if the speeches were simply copied and pasted from a speech that same character gave two books ago. And then finally by about book 6 or so, every time you see a character launch into a major speech, you just skip ahead six or seven pages until you find where the quote marks stop and everyone goes back to stabbing bad guys.
A rough synopsis of the series [SPOILER ALERT] is that Hank Roark Richard Cypher, a simple woods guide, is actually the leader of the D’Haran Empire, and the beautiful Dagn- Domini- Kahlan has been sent to fetch him. After securing his title as Supreme Commander of the Old World, he then must fight the rampaging horde of liberal democrats in the New World that wish to destroy individualism and promote the idea of from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.
Anyway, they all live in a world where it is possible to conquer the forces of evil simply by demonstrating to them your noble, liberty-loving spirit and your adamant refusal to live your life for another.
In one book — no clue where, I’m going to stab at a guess and say somewhere around #5 — Richard makes a statue of a naked woman. This statute is so magnificent that merely by looking at it, you can tell that the woman in the statue is a Fierce Libertarian, and her dedication to her capitalist values inspires all who see it to gape in awe and wish to live up to higher ideals of liberty. Stop me if this is sounding familiar. Oh, that’s right, Howard Roark already made that statue.
It was sort of stupid when Ayn Rand did it, and it is downright riding the short bus when Terry Goodkind does it. C’mon. Not even Michelangelo made statutes so fantastic that everyone who glances upon them understands the precise philosophical views that the sculptor was trying to convey. At least when Heinlein incorporated sculptures into his books (i.e., Rodin’s La Belle Heaulmiere), he chose ones that actually exist and therefore can actually have an emotional impact on the reader.
If Goodkind had actually written the philosophical treatise he imagines his books to be, he’d be guilty of creating strawman arguments that are so absurd they make a Volokh Conspiracy comment thread look like a reasoned and fair minded intellectual exchange. The bad guys in The Sword of Truth are all communist caricatures. They have no normal human emotions, but rather are propelled to their actions only by a fierce hatred of life and freedom; they feverishly believe that their own lives are meaningless, and that only by living for others can they find their true purpose.
The evil soldiers are generally too in love with death and destruction to be reasoned with, but the simple townsfolk — the ones who don’t mean to be evil, but are accidentally evil due to their failure to analyze the communist lessons they have been taught — are more malleable. They only believe in communism until Richard gets a chance to come along and patiently explain to them that, yes, it’s okay to be proud of yourself and to think that your life is worth something. And then they are all instantly Enlightened, and wish to dedicate their own lives to Richard’s cause.
It doesn’t take much to enlighten the peasantfolk, really; one suspects Richard would have had an easier time fighting Emperor Jagang’s horde if he’d simply airdropped thousands of libertarian pamphlets all throughout the New World. For instance, at one point, Richard is able to convert an entire New World town to be Republican voters simply by repairing his front step.
Fine, it was a little more complicated than that, but I don’t have the books here to contradict me, so that’s close enough. But seriously. Richard — who is stranded and anonymous in the New World — is living in Stalingrad or somesuch, and wakes up one morning and goes to fix the broken front step on the porch. The townspeople watch in awe. “Why would you do that?” One of them asks. “Why not wait for someone else to fix the step for you?” “Because,” Richard patiently explains, “I can only control myself. I will do what I can to make my own life better, and not wait for someone to fix it for me.”
And bam, the townspeople Get It, and convert en masse away from communism. Screw this living-for-everyone-else nonsense! My life is valuable! I’m going to go fix another porch step! Let’s go throw a Tea Party!
The most irritating quirk about Goodkind is his inability to understand what it is he’s written. In an online interview, when asked how Sword of Truth differed from other fantasy novels, he answered,
“First of all, I don’t write fantasy. I write stories that have important human themes. They have elements of romance, history, adventure, mystery and philosophy. Most fantasy is one-dimensional. It’s either about magic or a world-building. I don’t do either.”
Okay, Goodkind, let’s count the number of things wrong with this sentence.
1) All fantasy novels have “important human themes.” That’s the ‘novel’ part, not the ‘fantasy’ part.
2) Most — actually, scratch that, all — fantasy novels have an element of romance, history, adventure, mystery or philosophy to them, and most fantasy novels contain all of those aspects.
3) Some fantasy is one-dimensional. See, for instance, the characters in your books. Who believe in freedom and liberty. And never waver from their dedication to their Libertarian values, no matter how much you torture them. Your characters are walking one dimensional stereotypes who have inner lives that are about as complicated as a golden retriever’s. So I wouldn’t be throwing stones from that glass house, Mr. Goodkind.
4) True, fantasy can roughly be defined as speculative fiction that’s premised on the presence of magic and/or takes place in a world created by the author. Now, the Sword of Truth takes place in a strange land known as “The Old World,” which is further divided into three regions known as D’Hara, the Midlands, and
the Westlands. Each of these regions have reasonably substantive back stories, customs, and histories. Furthermore, your two major characters are notable because one of them happens to be sorcerer with the power to use both Additive AND Subtractive magic and the other is that last in a line of magical women who have the power to kill you with their brains (well, and with their touch). Now, how exactly does this prove your books are not typical fantasy…?
5) You wrote an 11-goddamned-books-long series about a farmer-turned-king who wields magic and stabs people with swords. You write fantasy, dude, hate to break it to you.
He also ridiculously claims that, although his books have magic in them, it’s different from all that mystical magic mumbo jumbo in other fantasy books, because in his books magic “is a metaphysical reality that behaves according to its own laws of identity.” Riiiiight. Because no other fantasy book ever has invented magic that has special characteristics and its own particular set of rules that must be followed in order to successfully wield it.
What bothers me the most is Goodkind’s apparent belief that there is something mutually exclusive between “being fantasy” (or “being science fiction”) and “being a serious work with philosophical themes.” That is absurd on its face; one look at George Orwell and Ray Bradbury should prove that.
Moreover, Ayn Rand, whom Goodkind is quite open about having a giant crush on, had no problem with telling stories through science fiction. Anthem is very clearly a scifi novella. And, trivia fact for all the Ayn Rand fans out there — before Rand wrote The Fountainhead, her first plan was to write a space opera before an editor dissuaded her. (Much to my disappointment, I might add.)
Even aside from its heavy handed obsession with Ayn Rand, The Sword of Truth can be heavily criticized for the failings it has as a fantasy novel. It’s a separate rant that doesn’t belong here, but I never got over the frustration of feeling like Goodkind was a poor man’s Robert Jordan. Everything Goodkind wrote, Robert Jordan wrote first. (Okay, and everything Jordan wrote, Tolkien wrote first. I can’t rightly rag on Goodkind for copying his Samuel after Jordan’s Padan Fain without noting that both are essentially Gollum…) Even the names are similar. Take, for example, how Robert Jordan invents an ancient rediscovered magic that, when used, can rip apart the fabric of the cosmos, and names it Balefire. Goodkind than invents an ancient rediscovered magic that, when used, threatens to rip apart all of the cosmos, and he names it… Chainfire. You get the idea.
Terry Goodkind also has a slight issue in that every single one of his female characters between the ages of 13 and 60 is raped on a minimum of one occasion, and the major female characters each get raped at least one hundred times. This is not an exaggeration, that actually happens. I don’t know why his editor didn’t say to him, “You know, you ought to think of something nasty to happen to your heroines that doesn’t involve multiple gang rapes.” Or if the editor did, Goodkind obviously didn’t listen. To his (mild) credit, Goodkind continually emphasizes how wrong and evil the rapist characters are, but that doesn’t stop the constant barrage of violent sexual assaults from making the series really uncomfortable to read at times. If Terry Goodkind really thinks rape is such a horrible thing, then why does he feel the need to include it in a scene every third chapter?
Final Thoughts: If, despite this blog post, you do find yourself reading The Sword of Truth, and are becoming overwhelmed with its smug air of superiority, here is a handy trick to make it more entertaining: Every time you see “Richard” in the text, in your mind cross it out and replace it with the word “Dick.”