A rare, Randian hummingbird: Terry Goodkind’s Debt of Bones.
I don’t like Terry Goodkind.
Some years ago, a friend of mine saw I read a lot of fantasy, so he loaned me a copy of Terry Goodkind’s Wizard’s First Rule. I managed to finish the book, despite it being generally contrived and terrible. For example, the bad guy of Wizard’s First Rule is named Darken Rahl, and his big plan for medevial fantasyland is to ban fire. We’re meant to take this seriously. The only reason it wasn’t the worst book I read that summer is because that same friend also loaned me a copy of Robert Newcomb’s The Fifth Sorceress, which is waaaay up there on my “worst book I ever read” list. I didn’t really listen to any of his recommendations after that.
Anyway, back to Goodkind. See, he’s written a metric buttload of doorstopper fantasy novels, which are just jam packed with crazy objectivist nonsense with occasional 100 page digressions into kinky medevial S&M. Yeeeeah.
Funnily enough, they actually adapted the books (at least the first two, I think?) into a TV show, which was actually halfway decent, for the “pretty people with swords run around New Zealand” genre.
I’ve mostly avoided Goodkind’s work since then, but sometimes…well, sometimes you just feel like reading something terrible. That said, the average Goodkind novel is thick enough to drive nails with, so I’ve mostly steered clear of his stuff at the used bookstore.
That is, until now!
Debt of Bones is a novella that got published as a standalone thing- it’s a prequel to his whole Sword of Truth series. At barely 150 pages (and about 25 cents at the used bookstore), I figured I’d give it a go.
The story itself is simple- it centers on a peasant woman named Abby, who has traveled to the capital of fantasyland (Goodkind gives it a name but I forget), to petition the First Wizard to save her daughter, who’s been captured by the Evil Bad Guys who are at war with fantasyland for no apparent reason. It strikes me that the head wizard in charge of coordinating the whole war effort would be a little too busy for hearing random petitions, but hey, what can you do. Oh, and apparently Abby’s mother (who was a sorceress) has a debt she can call in from the First Wizard, which is magically held in her dead mom’s skull. Or something. That’s where the title comes from.
I’m gonna be petty (well, pettier) for a second, and snicker at the title. It’s a letter away from “Debt of Boners,” which my inner 6th grader finds hilarious. It doesn’t help that the Evil Dark Lord Dude is named…Panis Rahl. Seriously, Goodkind has a talent for picking terrible names for his various characters. When you can just change one letter of a character’s name to make it dirty, that’s probably a bad choice. This is why I will not have a villain named Emperor Daldo in my upcoming sprawling fantasy epic.
Other silly names Goodkind comes up with include the First Wizard Zedd, which I suppose is a perfectly serviceable fantasy name, even if it makes me think of the Power Rangers.
Or the order of mind-control-witch-ladies in Goodkind’s books, the Confessors. It’s supposed to have a religious undertone, I guess, but characters are referred to as “Confessor” pretty regularly, which in turn makes me think of Kompressor, everyone’s favorite German techno-monster.
Anyway, the plot chugs along, Zedd uses Abby to lure out the Evil Bad Guys, whereupon he rescues Abby’s family, his own daughter (who’d also been captured by the Evil Bad Guys), and then he raises a big magic wall to keep the Evil Bad Guys out of the kingdom. This in turn sets the stage for the Sword of Truth series to take place years later. Perfectly serviceable prequel.
All and all, Debt of Bones is not as howlingly bad as Wizard’s First Rule, but it’s also several hundred pages shorter, so Goodkind didn’t have to start padding it out with the crazy. As a standalone fantasy story, the only real things I’d ding it for are the dull characters, the occasional bit of exposition, and the fact that Zedd’s plan more or less requires people to be idiots. So…well, there’s stuff to complain about, but I’ve read worse.
But, here’s the thing. Goodkind wrote an introduction ts on about how Debt of Bones not only sets up stuff for the Sword of Truth novels, but also how it asks questions about power and responsibility and stuff. Which…it really doesn’t.
Being petty again, but let’s look at the picture of Terry Goodkind he included on the back cover. I snapped a pic of the back cover itself, because there’s a lot going on here.
To start, look at the guy. Goodkind is just glaring at the camera, because his book is SERIOUS BUSINESS. Between the beard, the ponytail, and the black shirt, he looks like the one guy from your Sophomore European History class who keeps arguing with the Professor about how colonialism wasn’t really that bad, because of Kipling or something.
Then, there’s the little blurb. “Terry Goodkind lives in the western United States.” That’s it. Doesn’t mention his family, his hobbies, or even any other works- it’s just…there. I’m not saying I need a full biography, but a few little humanizing details tend to go a long way. As it is, we just get his habitat, which makes him sound like some kind of rare, Randian hummingbird.
The final little detail is on the side- “Photo by Jeri Goodkind.” To be fair, I can’t fault the guy for tagging in his wife to take his photo, especially if she got paid for it. On the other hand, I wonder if it was easier to have his wife take the picture instead of a different photographer. I can just imagine Goodkind yelling at some poor guy- “No, no, that picture’s all wrong! I was sort of smiling! Do it again!”
Fantasy is a rich genre, and there’s a lot of room there to explore various social issues, along with the obligatory swords and dragons on the cover. Terry Pratchett, for example, is a master of using Discworld to present a skewed mirror of our own world. The thing is…Terry Goodkind is no Terry Pratchett. The more Goodkind tries to present his work as Very Important Literature, the more pretentious he becomes. That’s my ultimate issue with Terry Goodkind- and it’s funny how something so simple as an author photo can illustrate my point.
So there you are, kids. Sometimes you can judge a book by its cover. The inside cover, at least.