In a dramatic shift in setting, I’m now going to take a look at an author who’s either the Heinlein of epic fantasy or its Ayn Rand, Terry Goodkind, and his Sword of truth series.
The sword of truth series (occasionally also known as the “Richard and Kahlan books”) is the sine qua non of libertarian fantasy fiction. As with Heinlein, Goodkind’s work is strong enough to be enjoyed by those who don’t share their political proclivities. That being said, as the series goes on, Goodkind’s work becomes increasingly polemical and the actions taken by the characters become increasingly difficult to justify. By the end, it’s less Heinlein and more Ayn Rand.
Brief plot summary
Richard Cypher is a woosdman lives in the Westland, a land without magic kept partitioned from the magical Midlands by a supernatural barrier. After rescuing a mysterious young woman from a group of assassins, he becomes involved in a quest that will reveal the secrets of his heritage and determine the fate of the world.
So how is it?
It’s complicated. The first book is pretty good, but the message the author is trying to send with the series is questionable, to say the least. The early volumes in the series are, primarily, fantasy novels. They have the advantage of being largely independent, so you can read as many or as few of them as you desire. The author’s politics are still present, but it’s still relatively easy to ignore them if you so choose. The later volumes however are essentially propoganda tracts, where the heroes commit horrific war crimes while serving as mouthpieces for Goodkind’s libertarian views, and the villains all espouse thinly disguised left-wing philosophies.
I didn’t really notice the political message in the earlier books until I read the later ones. There was a line or two about the villains being evil because in advocating for equality they would cut down the great to save the weak. It’s one line in the first book, and it’s totally possible to enjoy the book regardless of how you feel about Goodkind’s politics.
Wizard’s first rule also features a poorly thought out caricature of gun control in the form of the anti-fire movement. It’s a little embarrassing to read as it adds nothing to the story. Because it’s so irrelevent, and it’s only mentioned a couple of times, it’s fairly easy to overlook. I first read this book in middle school, and didn’t even catch the political message. That part just struck me as bizarre, considering how necessary fire is to do things like cooking and not freezing to death in the winter.
Each volume in the series tells a more-or-less compelling, self-contained story. The problem is that in the author’s attempts to make each volume self-contained, he ends up creating a series where world-building is incredibly inconsistent. In each volume, the rules of the universe are revised and changed drastically in ways that don’t necessarily coincide with what has happened in previous installments. Still, as relaxing entertainment reading it doesn’t detract from the series too much as long as you don’t think about it too much.
The sword of truth is certainly more violent than your average epic fantasy series, or at least the violence is more gruesome. This really increases the impact and works fairly well, as the stakes become pretty high and the effects of violence are presented as visceral and unpleasant. It’s explicit in a George R.R. Martin kind of way, but without Martin’s depth of characterization.
What’s strange about the violence is that early on it’s established that one of Richard’s strengths is his ability to control his temper and remain coolheaded in the face of extreme stress. Almost as soon as this is established, Richard becomes a sword-and-sworcery version of the Incredible Hulk, becoming superpowered by his rage. Later volumes in the series feature a Richard who alternates between smug superiority and berserker rage. It’s not a great portrayal and serves to emphasize the flaws in the later volumes.
There’s also some pretty extreme sexual content in the series. The first volume features Richard being kidnapped and imprisoned by a BDSM-themed torturer, and kinky sex is a staple of the series. Unfortunately, so is sexual assault, and it’s not exactly handled well. It seems like Kahlan is incapable of going more than 100 pages or so without an attempted rape, and the way Goodkind depicts these assaults has more in common with rape-and-revenge cinema than it does with George R.R. Martin’s treatment of the same issues. Sexual assault, while not condoned, is still portrayed in a “sexy” way so readers sensitive to those issues should avoid this series.*
It’s pretty clear that Terry Goodkind doesn’t understand how different languages work. Every time a foreign language appears it’s in the form of a one-to-one cypher for English. Every word corresponds to exactly one other word in English, word order is exactly the same, etc. Other languages aren’t really languages, they’re secret codes. It’s probably not something most reader’s will notice or care about, but I found it really really distracting.
The sword of truth starts strong, but by Faith of the fallen turns completely into polemic. The naked empire features a paper-thin portrayal of communism, where Richard inevitably becomes wealthy only to have his hard-earned wealth stolen to subsidize people who are too lazy to work. That was the point where I lost faith in the series, and the series falls apart as Goodkind’s attempts to use it to push his political views result in “heroes” who justify horrific war crimes because “they were doing it to save lives”.
*To Goodkind’s credit, he never treats rape as funny, unlike Robert Jordan’s use of rape at knifepoint as comic relief.
The series starts strong and features some compelling writing
Each volume stands on its own more or less so you can read as much or as little as you desire
After the fourth book or so the series degenerates into polemic.
It’s essentially Ayn Rand with swords, even including her rule of A=A as one of the “wizard’s rules”
Plays the sexual assault to titillate the reader card a little too frequently
Richard is kind of insufferable, being preternaturally good at absolutely everything and prone to lengthy political diatribes
The first book is recommended for all epic fantasy fans who can handle the sex and violence. Those who really enjoy the first book should check out the next couple, but only hardcore libertarians, objectivists, or ancaps will enjoy the second half of the series. Like Heinlein, the first half of the series has some strong points that the propaganda aspects don’t overshadow, but the rest of the books are more like Atlas shrugged in a pointy hat.
If the series sounds interesting but you don’t want to subject yourself to the questionable politics or graphic violence you should check out the television adaptation of the series, Legend of the seeker. It’s kind of low budget in a Xena warrior princess kind of way but does a pretty good job of taking the high points of the series and ignoring its problematic aspects.
I’d recommend the other “big” epic fantasy series over this one unless a patron was explicitly a fan of Rand and epic fantasy. I still have and do recommend this series, but I’d recommend the following first:
The Malazan book of the fallen / Steven Erikson– Stephen Erikson’s series is, to me, the ultimate in epic fantasy. The scope is huge, it has a wide cast of characters, and asks some tough questions about morality and cultural relativism. Erikson is an anthropologist by education and it shows. This my #1 recommendation for fantasy fans.
The kingkiller chronicles / Patrick Rothfuss – My number 2 recommendation, this series is still incomplete but is really really good. Manages to be compelling and humorous at the same time.
A song of ice and fire / George R.R. Martin – The basis for the HBO series Game of thrones, A song of ice and fire has the sex and violence of The sword of truth but manages a depth of characterization and moral complexity that far surpasses Goodkind. This is also a series more likely to appeal to non-fantasy readers due to its more down-to-earth tone.
The wheel of time / Robert Jordan – The wheel of time is the Laurence Welk of epic fantasy. It’s solid and popular, with a massive fanbase and a broad appeal, but it’s a little bland and sometimes too inoffensive.
The first law trilogy / Joe Abercrombie – This is by far the darkest of the series I’ve mentioned here. This series is brutal, featuring some of the most entertainingly selfish characters of the genre and solid plotting throughout. It’s great for readers who liked the darkness of The sword of truth but want something more character focused. It’s probably Abercrombie’s weakest work but it’s also the one most likely to appeal to “traditional” epic fantasy readers.