The Sword of Truth Volumes 1 to 4 by Terry Goodkind
Wizard's First Rule (Orion, £6.99, 774 pages, paperback. Published 1995; reprinted 5 October 1998.)
Stone of Tears (Orion, £6.99, 1056 pages, paperback. Published 1996; reprinted 5 October 1998.)
Blood of the Fold (Orion, £6.99, 698 pages, paperback. Published 29 December 1997; reprinted 5 October 1998)
Temple of the Winds (Orion, £17.99, 528 pages, hardback; published 29 December 1997; trade paperback published 19 June 1998 at £11.99; mass market Millennium paperback published 5 October 1998 at £6.99)
With over three thousand pages already published in a mere four volumes, one could be forgiven for immediately dismissing Terry Goodkind's The Sword of Truth series as just another bookshelf-collapsing fantasy blockbuster. Having taken those three thousand pages at a headlong gallop over the last month, I would say that to dismiss Goodkind as just another author trying to clamber on the Eddings/Jordan bandwagon would be selling a genuinely good storyteller short.
The overall storyline of The Sword of Truth is bog standard modern fantasy. Richard Cypher, humble woodsman and guide in peaceful Westland meets up with Kahlan in his native woods one day, and helps her to defeat a quartet of assassins sent to murder her. Kahlan comes from over the mountains, from the magical Midlands (silent guffaws all round for British readers, more used to thinking of "the Midlands"; as the distinctly non-magical industrial heartland around Birmingham and Coventry), formerly sealed off from Westland by a barrier. Richard finds himself drawn into the fight to save the Midlands from a series of deadly foes, each one more difficult to defeat than the last. Each new opponent forces Richard to delve into his own latent magical abilities, all the while he is trying to solve the problems that prevent him from taking Kahlan for his wife.
The Sword of Truth differs from both Eddings' interminable series (with its endlessly recycled plots) and Jordan's agonisingly prolonged Wheel of Time (gradually doling out less and less meaningful plot per volume). Goodkind manages to do two things with each volume. He first tells a near-enough complete story each time, based around the same set of characters but coming to a satisfactory conclusion each time, leaving the reader with some sense of closure for each volume. That's a rarity in the fantasy publishing days of Robert Jordan, king of the unfinished plot. Secondly, Goodkind cranks up the tension with each story, escalating the stakes each time, placing his protagonists in ever greater peril, but with commensurate rewards.
The other excellent thing about Goodkind is that his craft is improving book by book. Unlike Jordan and Eddings, who hit the ground running but seem to have gradually lost their ability to deliver the goods ever since, Goodkind is visibly learning. In Wizard's First Rule, there are several instances of gauche writing where the book came very close to performing the critical 'splat against the far wall'. This was particularly true when the blatant Tolkien rip-off Samuel turns up (a Gollum clone with no obvious reason for being in the plot). In Stone of Tears, Goodkind also pillages a little too freely from Jordan's Aes Sedai with the introduction of the Sisters of Light (and Dark). However, by Temple of the Winds, Goodkind is weaving a mystery subplot of sadistic murder into the story with some subtlety, and inventively tackling new areas with gusto. Goodkind genuinely is learning his trade, rather than treading water.
If there is one thing that might put readers off Goodkind's work, it would be the heavily sado-masochistic treatment the heroes have to endure at the villains' hands. There is a justifying sense that it all works out, that the suffering is necessary to give Richard, in particular, the key to understanding his own magical powers. But along the way there are scenes of torture and humiliation that would certainly give younger or more delicate readers a sleepless night or two.
Summing up, I'd say that Terry Goodkind is looking to match Robert Jordan in the blockbuster fantasy stakes, but if his learning curve continues to rise at its current rate, then before he finishes The Sword of Truth he will have easily eclipsed his rival. After that, his future works should be worth anybody's time to read.
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© John D Owen 9 May 1998