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Readers are stupid.
This must have been the rule behind the rule, the one Terry Goodkind lived and wrote by when he conceived of Wizard’s First Rule. Wizard’s First Rule is the first volume in his Jordanesque Sword of Truth series, and the book annoyed me in more ways than I thought possible.
Seen through one’s lashes, Wizard’s First Rule is a dime-a-dozen epic fantasy. Yes, there’s the unremarkable-protagonist-turned-Chosen. (Rand al Thor, anyone?) Yes, there’s the friendly neighborhood magician slash powerful wizard. (Gandalf, anyone?) Yes, there’s the evil lord aspiring to world domination (Ragoth Maugrim, anyone? Though with a huge dash of Darth Vader thrown in.) A group of heroes forms, or should I say a Fellowship? They embark upon a quest to retrieve a ring magic sword scandalous tape recording competitor’s recipe magical box MacGuffin*.
There’s adventure, misadventure, opposition, help from unexpected corners. There is a dragon. There is even—shame on you, Terry, for reusing this tiresome cliche—the primitive tribe who first decline to aid the protagonist, whereupon disaster narrowly deflected by the protagonist convinces them otherwise. There is—and I can say this without any risk whatsoever of giving anything away—the eventual defeat of Sauron Ragoth Brandin*** Warlock Lord Darken Rahl through a poignant and significant reversal. There is a resolved love angle. There is even the Return of the King.
All this just proves that Goodkind was very clever indeed when he cashed in the largest advance ever given a debut author for his dime-a-dozen epic.
That’s not what’s annoying. What’s annoying is that Goodkind has applied the Wizard’s First Rule from the book to his readers.
In the narrative, much is made of Wizard’s First Rule, which is the most powerful rule a Wizard can take advantage of. The rule is simply this: people are stupid. In the book, the protagonist has ample opportunity to capitalize on this. But Goodkind tries the same with his plot twists. Anywhere there’s a sudden revelation, a turnabout, a plot device, the rhythm of the prose announces it as something new, exciting and unexpected about to happen. But in most cases, the reader would need major brain damage to fail to see it coming a mile away.
And this rather offensive underestimation of his readers’ intelligence is not the only reason why Goodkind’s First Rule is bad, naughty, bad. More seriously, it also destroys the credibility of his main characters. If the reader can see it coming, the carefully established wisdom and/or street smarts of the heroes collapse like a house of cards: oh, he can’t be that clever after all if he was surprised by this obvious turn of events.
HERE BE SPOILERS!!
I won’t bore you with a long, long list of examples of main character idiocy (or reader patronizing). But the final victory over the Evil Overlord deserves special mention. It’s a bit like that three-door quiz show. Behind door A, world domination! Behind door B, instant death! Behind door C, destruction of the entire world! Which door will the candidate choose? Of course, the candidate—the Evil Overlord, EO—wants world domination, but doesn’t know which door is which. But in the book, the protagonist does! Or rather, for reasons too tedious to go into, he has memorized the instruction manual, word for word.
The resolution of the plot hinges on this choice the EO needs to make, and the knowledge residing inside the protagonist’s head. And that’s where Goodkind’s assumption of reader stupidity really flies out of control.
First, the book wants us to accept that the protagonist has no choice but to go to the EO and recite the manual. For the sake of my argument, let’s accept that, although the reasoning there is flimsy to the point of full transparancy.
For page after page (and I’m talking the final 5-10% of the book here), the protagonist drags his feet and bites his nails, worrying and fretting about the inevitable time when he will have to return to EO and do his recital.
And then, just before the moment supreme, he has an epiphany! Triggered by his all-consuming love for his love interest—and also by some weeks of prolonged and gruesome torture—he suddenly sits up and thinks: I could lie!
Well duh, Richard!
So he meets the EO, and the EO says:
Soooo, Richard… Tell me! Behind which door is World Domination?”
“Let me see,” says Richard. “Ah, I remember! Door B!”
“Nooooo!” the EO cries as he opens door B and perishes.
“Gotcha!” Richard says.
END SPOILER ALERT
Come on, Terry! That was beyond lame!
If you don’t mind having your intelligence insulted for 500 pages, by all means read this fine, though unremarkable epic fantasy.
If, on the other hand, you enjoy being made to think by an author, steer clear of this book. Better still, join me in chanting Fantasy Reader’s First Rule:
“Terry Goodkind is stupid!”
* In fact, the only thing unusual about this wholly unremarkable epic fantasy is that the protagonist is the MacGuffin.**
** That, and the 50 pages of torture porn that suddenly make an appearance somewhere at the end.
*** Brandin of Ygrath, one of the two evil overlords of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, is listed here only to give me the opportunity to remark in this footnote that his mention in this review is wholly undeserved, seeing as how in Tigana, Kay created a very non-standard fantasy epic with highly non-standard bad guys. In fact, if you’re into fantasy, you’re better off ignoring this review altogether and ordering a copy of Tigana.