Never let it be said that I
Note: I gave up on Jordan in the eighth book of his series, and Terry Goodkind in the fourth. (Not coincidentally, it was about the same time that I discovered Kay, Martin, and Brust). Most of the information about later books is gleaned from gleefully negative Amazon.com reviews. If I make a mistake, it's probably because of that.
1) When the narrative tells you that some characters are good and some are evil, there is a problem. The lines of good and evil are so thickly drawn in Jordan’s and Goodkind’s worlds as to be ridiculous. Jordan doesn’t even bother concealing how generic he is. His villain is the Dark One, and he will take over the world Because. His name, which no one pronounces (gee, is that Tolkien’s conception of Sauron I see being violated over there?) is Shai’tan (not a coincidence that it sounds like Satan! Bye-bye, subtlety!) and his servants include the Forsaken (even they call themselves that) and the Black Ajah (by now, any subtlety has run so far away it is not visible on the horizon). There is no good in the Dark One. There is no good in the Forsaken. There is no chance of anyone who’s a “Darkfriend” being redeemed. Once you’re evil, you’re evil. There was one character in the books, Asmodean, who looked as if he might be changing into a good character, but of course he’s weak and sniveling and gets blasted by someone else almost immediately. So even when Jordan offers himself an opportunity to blur the lines, it’s not going to happen.
Goodkind is similarly determined that no one empathize with his villain. His villain’s name is Darken Rahl. Yes, really. The first time we see him, he’s torturing and disemboweling a child. Yes, really. One of Darken Rahl’s servants is a pedophile whose liking of little boys is described and lingered on. Yes, really. One of the book’s minor villains tries to ban people from using fire. Yes, really. There are also the Sisters of the Dark, in an organization so similar to Jordan’s Aes Sedai that many, many people have accused Goodkind of outright copying. And, of course, they also practice sadism and rough sex. How horrible. /monotone
The heroes are no better. We know that Perrin, one of the three male main characters, in Jordan’s world is good because other characters go around comparing him to the sun. The “hero,” Rand, has the love of three women, who are all okay with this, and attracts the attention and desire of many, many more, and of course smashes his enemies without any effort. Jordan has introduced the possibility that Rand might go insane, but since every enemy who rises up against him gets his ass kicked in the exact same way, after a period of smugness and gloating, the tension’s lessened considerably. And, of course, there’s the female wizard who jerks the heroes around all through the first book and tells them she doesn’t have time to explain anything. You know she must be good, because the other characters cower in front of her.
And Goodkind’s Richard Rahl… If the narrative stopped describing him as ruggedly handsome and having every other character in sight tell him, “You’re a special person, Richard,” then the series might actually have ended by now.
2) Hello, misogyny. Goodkind and Jordan both display a variation of “feminism” which is actually more damaging than the normal pseudo-feminism in fantasy, the kind that says a princess wearing a gown is suffering as much as someone being beaten or raped. Supposedly, because their fantasy novels include female characters in prominent roles, they’re “feminist.”
Nuh-uh. And also: neener, neener, neener.
Goodkind’s main female character is Kahlan, Richard’s love interest. And I use that phrase quite advisedly. Kahlan seems to have her own separate position—as Mother Confessor, one of a number of women who can destroy other people’s minds and command them—and her own quest, on which Richard is a helper, at first. As the books pass, though, her concerns diminish, and she becomes almost obsessed with Richard. She can’t exist apart from him. Every book sees her convinced that he doesn’t love her and that, though she loves him, she has to send him away from her for his own good. Then they get back together again at the end of the book. Tell me, how is that feminist?
Goodkind’s other female characters often either fall in love with Richard, get tortured and raped and killed, or both. The series is notorious for its violence and gore, beyond what most fantasy series have. (This isn’t a good thing. See point 5). Hundreds and hundreds of women raped are nothing unusual for just one book, and the series now numbers eight. Goodkind also includes anti-abortion diatribes for free. If you want to know how not to write strong female characters in fantasy, then you can consider Goodkind’s works a crash course.
Or you could read Jordan, of course. His women become indistinguishable after a while. They all sniff, smooth their skirts, and cross their arms under their breasts. They all call men woolheads. They all abuse men—and I also use that word advisedly; one of the three main male characters is subject to verbal abuse from his wife, the other to rape from a lover—so that their relationships are not equal. They also get into situations where they have to be half-naked all the time. No, ask Jordan. Not me.
The mere presence of women in a fantasy book is not enough to make those women strong characters. They have to, you know, do things and change and stuff for that to be true.
3) Ability-focused heroes ‘R Us. Jordan’s Rand (as well as several other characters) is a ta’veren. What is a ta’veren, you ask? Why, someone who can bend the world around them and make wonderful things happen in defiance of the laws of nature, of course! So a child can fall from a tower and not break her head, or people can get married who barely know each other, or, oh, I don’t know, the character could just happen to block an attack from an enemy he would never have seen if he hadn’t turned around at that instant in time.
This is a walking deus ex machina. Add to it that Rand is a channeler, drawing magic from the male half of the True Source and able to command all five elements; a master swordsman (no reason for that, either, as it’s just something he picks up in his spare time); somehow able to convince everybody that he’s their rightful ruler; and keeps finding bigger and bigger weapons to amplify his magic, and you have a demigod no one can touch. He was mildly interesting because he might have gone insane from a “stain” on his magic, but in the ninth book of the series, he cleanses the stain.
I gave up on Jordan in the eighth book. I could not stand the constant accumulation of abilities. Rand was an ass out of which Robert Jordan could pull anything he needed, not a character.
I hate to depress you, but Richard Rahl is worse. He picks up abilities like magic, including stone-carving; he creates a statue that converts people from socialism to capitalism, despite no previous experience carving stone. (Goodkind has a Thing about proving that Socialism Is Evil). He kills every enemy he comes across. He manages to survive torture in a way that no one ever has, without having developed the technique to do so; it’s “instinctive.” Every book ends with an immense confrontation that “no one can win!”—except that Richard can, of course. His heritage allows him to protect everyone who’s sworn loyalty to him from the evil socialist emperor, who can otherwise control them. He makes friends with dragons and escapes from the clutches of evil sadomasochistic women, who then cower at his feet. He’s the beloved son of his adoptive father, the beloved grandson of the second most powerful wizard in the world, the beloved of the most powerful woman in the world, etc. It. Just. Never. Ends.
There has to be an ending. Characters like this are the reason I get so aggravated when authors insist on designing their people around their abilities, or making the protagonist the protagonist mainly because he has cool or unusual magic. When the magic destroys all hindrances, you have no stories left. And just as a lot of women on-stage doesn’t make those women strong or interesting characters, having your hero be the only one in the world who can do something doesn’t guarantee that the book will be worth the effort to turn the pages.
4) Cultural development? What’s that? Before I was about 11, I read animal books. That’s really about it. Fairy tales, too, but mostly animal books. I was going to be a vet. I pretty much knew it. End of story.
Then Tolkien hit me on the head like a falling rock. When I woke up, slightly stunned, I started reading fantasy instead.
I’ve since read more fantasy books than I can remember, but one thing I carried away from Tolkien is a sensitivity to language. It drives me batshit when fantasy authors can’t be bothered to apply realistic linguistic drift to a world.
Cue Jordan not doing it. Cue another reason for me giving up on the series.
Jordan has an extraordinarily large continent for the main part of his world (I don’t know if it has a name; fans tend to call it “Randland.”) Part of it is a desert shut behind mountainous barriers, and the people who live there, the Aiel—who are basically transplanted Fremen—have little commerce with other people until Rand shows up. There’s also a foreign group, the Seanchan, who went beyond the sea two thousand years ago and have only recently returned.
Everyone speaks the same damn language. Everyone. The Seanchan only slur their vowels slightly in speaking modern Randlandese. And there is only one Old Tongue, which no one speaks without special training, and which has no intermediate form between it and modern Randlandese.
I am unhappy.
Goodkind has a world that was until recently subdivided into thirds by magical barriers: D’Hara, the Midlands, and Westland. (Imaginative at names Goodkind is not). There’s also the Old World, which is off to the southeast of D’Hara, kind of; it’s been a long time since I looked at the map in those books. It’s been a while since anyone traveled from the Old World to the Midlands, but only a single generation since the barriers went up between the three main lands.
Supposedly, everyone in Westland has never told their children anything about the Midlands or magic at all. Really. Honestly. All knowledge somehow lost in about twenty years.
Of course, this is also the country of the minor villain who wants to ban fire, so you might say, “What could you expect?” But no one remembers the Old World, either, despite the existence of a magical passage that some people from the Old World can use, and the existence of the evil socialist emperor who can invade people’s dreams. Goodkind just throws them in there haphazardly and as he needs them. New countries show up all the time. Millions of people show up all the time. Goodkind doesn’t develop cultures in conflict with each other, but as static entities to be destroyed or converted by the heroes.
This is a No-No. Your fantasy world needs reasonable demographics and geography. They may not be the same as Earth’s, they may run on different rules, they may not be as detailed as Tolkien’s, but they need to stay there, and if there’s every reason to suspect, as with Jordan, that the people have normal psychology and linguistic abilities, the language should fucking change like a normal language.
5) There is no end. Jordan’s series is 10 books now, each of them close to 1000 pages in paperback, and a prequel just came out. There are going to be two more prequels and likely at least three more volumes in the main series. It was originally projected as a trilogy, then as a six-book series. It’s been going on for 15 years now. And he’s written the last four books at such a glacially slow pace that almost nothing has happened. The first book covered months, while the seventh covered two weeks, and most of the tenth book happened before the ninth.
Kill it. Burn it. Stab it to death. If it’s true, as Jordan says, that he’s had the ending scene in mind from the beginning, then let him write that ending scene in the next book and be done. Fantasy is the land of expansive storytelling, but there is no storytelling that can justify this kind of thing—especially because Jordan spends so much time on descriptive detail, not action or plot or character development. Supposedly, something is about to happen, about to happen, about to happen. It never does.
Goodkind’s books are a little shorter—usually closer to 800 pages than 1000—but there’s eight of them, and apparently three more to come before the series ends. And then he might start doing prequels, too. The story structure itself doesn’t seem to be aiming at some grand end, either, the way that Jordan’s series (if one is overly kind) can be seen as doing. Richard and Kahlan just confront the next grand menace that no one’s ever confronted before and which is sure to tear them apart, survive it, and move on to the next grand confrontation that they won’t survive, except that they will, because you know there’s another book coming out.
Goodkind’s filler material is also description, but not of the landscape and clothing the way that Jordan’s is. It’s sadism, rape, torture of every description (the minor villain in the first book who likes to rape little boys is made to cut off his own testicles and eat them), more rape, killing, more rape, plague, more rape, murder, and more rape. Apparently, in the later books, Goodkind also spends much time ranting in a barely disguised Ayn Rand fashion about the evils of socialism, and his characters have long philosophical conversations instead of doing interesting things.
This is one reason I dread long fantasy series. Too many authors take the market’s permissiveness to write long books as, “I need to write a long series to get the point across.” No, you don’t need to. It should be as long as it should be, and no more. If you find yourself stretching the story, if you add in description that doesn’t need it, if you find yourself adding prequels and sequels and side stories and wall calendars, you need to set an end, and you need to stick to it.
All right, so that got rid of some of the anger.