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By (October 1, 2009) One Comment

The Law of Nines

By Terry Goodkind
Putnam, 2009

Prolific bestselling novelist Terry Goodkind’s new book, The Law of Nines, takes several half-hearted swipes at moving his franchise from the sub-genre of bland, derivative fantasy to the far more lucrative sub-genre of bland, derivative contemporary thrillers, and the results will of course please his long-time fans (who come, one suspects, pre-pleased) – and irritate and bore the spit out of everybody else.

The problems – both for Goodkind’s 27-year-old everyman protagonist Alex Rahl and for those Goodkind readers who aren’t already applauding – begin on the first page of The Law of Nines, when Alex, standing on the curb in a small Nebraska town, sees a “great white truck” with a pirate flag painted on it take the intersection too fast and barrel toward the sidewalk. Alex also notices the woman standing right next to him in the truck’s path and yanks her out of the way just in time. But the danger’s not over, either for Alex or those of us reading along:


When he [Alex] looked up to see what kind of maniac was driving he instead met the direct, dark glare of a burly passenger. The man’s curly beard and thick mat of dark hair made him look like he really could have been a pirate. His eyes, peering out of narrow slits above plump, pockmarked cheeks, were filled with a kind of vulgar rage.

The big man appeared infuriated that Alex and the woman would dare to be in the way of their off-road excursion. As the door popped open there was no doubt as to his combative intent.

He looked like a man stepping out of a nightmare.

Alex felt a cold wave of adrenaline flood through him as he mentally choreographed his moves. The passenger, who looked to be ready to leap out of the still-moving truck, would reach him before the driver could join in, making it one against one – at least for a brief time. Alex couldn’t believe that it was happening, but it was and he knew that he was going to have to deal with it.

Calm fury filled him as he prepared himself for the unavoidable.

There’s bad writing that puts its friendly arm around you and makes you complicit in its wayward deeds (take a bow, Dumas pere et fils!), and then there’s bad writing that constantly whacks you in the face with a mallet. As that passage glaringly shows, Goodkind’s bad prose is not the good kind – it’s the face-malleting kind. “A kind of vulgar rage”? Which kind, I wonder? American Idol vulgar rage, or Nascar Nannies vulgar rage? “There was no doubt as to his combative intent”? Are you certain, Mr. Spock? Absolutely certain? “Calm fury”? Is that like “incredibly boring” or “outstandingly insipid”? And can anybody even hazard a guess at what that melodramatic “He looked like a man stepping out of a nightmare” might mean?

Goodkind has built a career on selling exactly this kind of adolescent hyperventilation to the cap-tossing groundlings of the sci-fi/fantasy trade. In 1994 Wizard’s First Rule became the hugely successful first installment in The Sword of Truth series, one of those open-ended monstrous fantasy caravans pioneered by the late Robert Jordan – series that have many twists and turns but no actual end, and hence no possibility of meaningful plot. Like Jordan’s equally-bland Wheel of Time series, The Sword of Truth will stretch on until the money dries up – and with roughly 25 million volumes sold, that probably won’t be happening any time soon.

So I suppose it’s possible to give him a little credit for trying something different, for setting this new novel in the recognizable world of small towns, intersections, and great white trucks. Except that’s not what he’s doing, as quickly becomes obvious when Jax, the exotic woman Alex saved, informs him that she comes from another world, a world where magic works, a world endangered and in need of a savior long-prophesied by a mystic book (the keepers of the book, who show up in the third act to unload several solid pages of exposition, tell Alex about the book, but they don’t show it to him – it’s too fragile. They keep it in a safe-deposit vault in Boston; I do the exact same thing with all my ancient mystical texts – the service fees are a pain, but the climate control is top-notch). In a gimmick lifted wholesale from fellow fantasy writer Stephen R. Donaldson, Goodkind puts plain old mirrors at the heart of the actual magic in his book, and of course there’s a bad guy, Radell Cain (you were expecting somebody not named Cain? You silly goose!).

In other words, The Law of Nines looks like it’s stepping out of the nightmare that is The Sword of Truth. When Alex bridles at all this being explained to him, Jax irritatedly tells him, “Look, Alex, this isn’t going to be easy to explain. It’s complex and I don’t have enough time right now to make it all clear for you. You need to trust me.”

And he does trust her – she’s very good-looking, after all. But as Cain and his cronies chase them all over the book, Alex is still unclear on some things:

Alex raked his fingers back through his hair. “I don’t get it, though. I don’t get the reason for the murders all over the world. He’s been trying to get his hands on us from the beginning. He left that note for me, so he obviously knew where we were. He could have stormed the place and had us last night while we were asleep. Why do this instead?”

Jax patiently explains – something about psychology, or perhaps it was reverse psychology. She does a very earnest job, but she could have saved herself some trouble and simply said, “Because he’s the villain, dummy, and you’re in a Terry Goodkind novel!”

Steve Donoghue is a writer and reader living in Boston with his dogs. He’s recently reviewed books for The Columbia Journal of American Studies, Historical Novel Review Online, and The Quarterly Conversation. He hosts the literary blog Stevereads and is the Managing Editor of Open Letters Monthly.

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