Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Book review: terry goodkind's the omen machine

Wednesday 16 April 2014

The following review contains mild spoilers from the early parts of the book.

Having neatly tied up his myriad loose ends in the final instalment of the Chainfire trilogy, Confessor, Terry Goodkind embarks on a whole new mess in The Omen Machine, the first in another series of Richard and Kahlan novels. Seeking, it seems, to torture his characters almost as much as his readers by keeping the spaces between novels (and cataclysms) infinitesimal, a new existential threat emerges during the celebrations following the defeat of the previous one, launching us on what is sure to be yet another protracted, poorly (i.e. not at all?) edited, banal adventure full of impossibly, ridiculously evil villains for Kahlan to be kidnapped or poisoned or otherwise imperilled by and for Richard to lecture us about. 

As an editor, reading Goodkind’s writing makes me want to prostrate myself before his publishers and beg them to allow me even a few hours alone with his manuscripts and a red pen, pro bono, before he is allowed to pollute the language with them. There’s none of the occasional moments of descriptive beauty sprinkled throughout Goodkind’s earlier works to be found here, no hint of his rarely exhibited though nonetheless surprising appreciation for detail. The prose is unwieldy and halting, repeated words clanking harshly up against one another and giving the book an overall careless, rushed feel à la the latter works of Raymond E Feist. It’s as though some of these B-grade epic fantasy authors work out that most readers don’t care how well-written their books are and they can just crank out sequel after sequel and make the same amount of money.

So, of course, it’s impossible to catalogue all the problems with a Terry Goodkind book in a single review, so I’m going to restrain myself to just one: his notorious monumental ego. Or rather, one way it manifests in his works. Possessed of a great number of opinions, ranging from morally reprehensible to innocuous, on any number of topics, Goodkind’s motivation in writing seems to be to embed as many of them in his books as often as possible, largely through the simplistic device of using his exaggeratedly perfect (in the world of the books, anyway) protagonist Richard directly to spout them for him. Plotting for Goodkind seems more an exercise in engineering various situations in which Richard can argue with and lecture other characters and the reader on one of these opinions than any conventional dedication to the integrity of the story or the gratification of the reader. Indeed, each novel is largely propelled not by action, but by argument. Revealing of their didactic impulse, the narratives largely turn on episodes in which different characters discuss events and ideas and try to convince one another of different positions in laborious exchanges that persist much longer than believability would allow.

The result is that the reader finds themself mired in perpetual, incessant exchanges between characters on subjects both mundane and esoteric, extended disputes over how best to organise and catalogue a library alongside lengthy treatises introducing abstract magical concepts that are never grounded in any previously established logic. These latter logomachies always reveal new concepts all at once, so the reader is never granted the chance to anticipate or share in the reasoning. It’s just Richard presenting some new element of the nature of magic that hasn’t come up before in any of the previous twelve overlong tomes, that completely explains what’s going on in this book, while everyone else disagrees that it’s possible until he is inevitably proven correct.

Goodkind facilitates this recurrent magical Deus ex machina at first by way of the charade of Richard’s ludicrous decision not to ‘depend on his gift’, even though he supposedly epitomises rationality and it is completely irrational for him to refuse to learn about an inescapable part of himself that could be so helpful to him, and later by making Richard a ‘war wizard’ whose magic is mysterious and able only to be activated by need and emotion, very conveniently giving it scope to work in any way the author chooses in future, failing to lock him in to any constraints. Such constraints are the very things that ordinarily make suspension of disbelief about magic possible in other series, the things that allow the reader to find any plots involving magic satisfying – that we know the way it works, that it has limits.

And I wasn’t kidding about the library debate, either. Just under an hour into the audiobook, an illustrative example of one of these monotonous, one-sided duologues occurs when we find ourselves in the royal library of D’Hara, the capital city of the eponymous empire ruled by Richard. After pacing for some time, Richard’s absurdly named grandfather, First Wizard Zeddicus ‘Zedd’ Z’ul Zorander, halts and proclaims that he’s ‘not convinced that it can work, Richard—or at least, work effectively.’ What follows is no less than six minutes of discussion over whether or not the classification of all the books in the library is a worthwhile pursuit.

What's more, this doesn’t even seem to be a point of any importance in the novel. I guess they came across a book that turned out to be important, but there’s nothing to say they had to do so while undertaking a reorganisation of the library. We can probably safely assume that it will come back in some way in future (I’m halfway through the sequel The Third Kingdom at the time of writing), but is there anything that could justify such a prolonged, mind-numbing argument over library classification?

It can only be Goodkind’s zeal to prove the veracity of one of his opinions that leads him to prolong these exchanges so unnaturally beyond the realms of credibility. He needs the discussion to go on much longer than it should so he has room to get out all of his profound thoughts. Would Zedd really try so hard to dissuade his grandson from such a harmless endeavour as trying to catalogue all the books in his library? And even if he would, is it really necessary for the reader to be subjected to it? So often does Goodkind deploy this device, it’s beginning to feel like Zedd never believes Richard about anything, no matter how many times he is proven right. All the characters, in fact, begin to appear obsessive and stubborn, overly concerned with debating minor details, unwilling to see the (diegetic) truth of their opponents’ assertions, their likeability in the eyes of the reader sacrificed at the altar of Goodkind’s ego. The debates depend on an endless stream of meaningless ‘But Richard …’ interjections from the protagonist’s interlocutors to interrupt the pages of explanation and prevent the diatribe from collapsing under its own weight. The characters are forever asking one another ‘What are you talking about?’ and ‘What do you mean?’ and regarding one another as though they are crazy because of all the insane propositions and profound misunderstandings flying back and forth.

Another illuminating instance of this propensity comes in another early scene in the novel. Shortly after a woman confesses to infanticide in order to spare her children the more gruesome death portended by a vision, and then attempts to murder Kahlan to spare her a similar fate, reformed Sister of the Dark Nicci shows up on the scene seeming to already know of the happenings despite her absence when they occurred. It becomes immediately apparent to the reader that there must be more than one instance of this going on throughout the city, but the characters on the other hand are not so fast on the uptake, positively baffled by the things they are telling one another, and we are forced to wade through 750 words of tortuous dramatic irony as the feeble-minded cast tries to determine what’s going on. It’s like the Abbott and Costello ‘Who’s on First’ skit (or the Animaniacs ‘Who’s on Stage?’ skit for you '90s kids) but without the witty paronomasia! See for yourself:

“I didn’t see you at the reception,” Richard said. “Where did you hear about her killing her children?”

Nicci frowned up at him. “Hear about it? I was there.”

“There? What do you mean you were there?”

Nicci folded her arms and stared at him as if he were the one who was crazy. “I was there. I was down in the market helping to get people organized and hurrying them along to move into the passages in the plateau and out of what is shaping up to be a monstrous storm. They need to move into shelter. Those tents aren’t going to protect them.”

“That’s true enough.”

Nicci sighed as she shook her head. “So, I was down there in the market when the first one hit.”

The creases in Richard’s brow deepened. “What do you mean, when the first one hit? First what?”

“Richard, aren’t you listening? I was there when the first child hit the ground.”

Richard’s jaw dropped. “What?”

“It was a girl, not ten years old. She came down on a log wagon, on one of the upright stake poles. That pole was bigger than my leg. She came down face-first, shrieking all the way. It went right through her chest. People were screaming and running around in confusion and panic.”

Richard blinked, trying to makes sense of what he was hearing. “What girl are you talking about?”

Nicci looked at all the faces watching her. “The girl that the woman threw off the palace wall, over the edge of the plateau, after she had her vision.”

Richard turned to Benjamin. “I thought you said you found the children.”

“I did. We found both of them.”

“Both?” Nicci’s brow drew tight. “There were four of them. All four of her children hit within seconds of one another. The first, the girl, was the oldest. When the woman threw them off the top of the plateau they all landed right there near me. Like I said, I was there. It was a horrifying scene.”

Kahlan seized a fistful of Nicci’s dress at her shoulder. “She killed four more?”

Nicci didn’t try to remove Kahlan’s hand. “Four more? What are you talking about? She killed her four children.”

Kahlan pulled Nicci closer. “She had two children.”

“Kahlan, she had four.”

Kahlan’s hand slipped from Nicci’s dress. “Are you sure?”

Nicci shrugged. “Yes. She told me so herself when I questioned her. She even told me their names. If you don’t believe me you can ask her yourself. I have her locked up in a cell down in the dungeon.”

Zedd leaned in closer. “Locked up . . . ?”

“Wait a minute,” Richard said. “You’re telling me that this woman killed her four children by throwing them off the side of the plateau? And you locked her up?”

“Of course. Haven’t you been listening to anything I’ve said?” Nicci frowned around at everyone. “I thought you said that you knew all about it. Her husband found out what had happened and was going to kill her. He was screaming for her blood. I was afraid that the guards who grabbed the woman were going to let him have her. I sympathize with his feelings, but I couldn’t allow it for now. I had her locked up, instead, because I thought you or Kahlan would want to question her.”

Richard was incredulous. “Why did she do it? What did she say?”

Nicci appraised them all as if they had collectively gone mad. “She said that she had a vision and couldn’t stand the thought of her children having to face the terror to come, so she killed them swiftly instead. You said that you knew about it.”

“We knew about the other one,” Richard said.

“Other one?” Nicci looked from face to face, finally settling on Richard. “What other one?”

“The one who cut her two children’s throats and then came to the reception and tried to kill Kahlan.”

Nicci’s concerned gaze darted to Kahlan. “Are you all right?”

“I’m fine. I took her with my power and had her confess. She told us what she had done and what she intended to do.”

Nicci pressed her fingers to her forehead. “Wait, you’re saying that there was a second woman who also had a vision and killed her children?”

Kahlan and Richard both nodded.

“That would help explain why people are so unnerved and want to know what prophecy has to say about it,” Richard said.

“What’s going on?” Nicci asked.


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