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Book review: <i>Confessor</i> by Terry Goodkind

the cover of the book

If this was the final episode of a TV show, it would definitely be Friends - wrinkled characters, an apathetic audience departing mid-show, and plotting you'd have seen already even if you hadn't seen it already.


As on the last book, we're looking at giant black bars with giant silver text, and a vague photographic background (mountains, this time) over which a women's silhouette has been uncomplicatedly photoshopped. And the author used to be a graphic designer, you say?


This is the eleventh book in the Goodkind's Sword of Truth series. As it begins, things look bleak for the forces of good. The evil socialist/theocratic Imperial Order has sent its armies across the world, and they're now camped in their hundreds of thousands on the plains at the foot of the plateau on which sits the People's Palace, one of the two last holdouts of the D'haran Empire. The other, the Wizard's Keep, is slowly surrendering the magic which protected it for thousands of years to the power of the Chainfire spell, a sort of magical self-destruct on time-release. And, in the way of these things, the only counter to Chainfire are the boxes of Orden, of which there are three, all currently in possession of Jagang, head of the Imperial Order. On top of this, Richard Rahl, ruler of the D'haran empire, is held as an anonymous slave within the Order's encampment and forced to compete in a sport called Jai A'Lai where players frequently die on the field or are murdered for losing. His wife, Kahlan, the eponymous Mother Confessor, has been shorn of her memory by the Chainfire spell, and thus neither recognises her husband, nor understands why she is now a prize slave at Emperor Jagang's side. How are they gettin' out of THIS bucket o'treacle?

The good

Confessor is that rarest of literary rarities - yes, rarer than well-paced contemporary literature, rarer than a thrilling thriller, rarer than a book with "Hilarious!" on the back that can raise a dry smile - it's the Final Chapter in a Fantasy Series. Eleven books in, Goodkind draws his sword across the plump white throat of the gold-poopin' goose. Seriously, this alone deserves mention. Sure, you could skip four or five of said books and not miss much; sure, eleven titles is approaching Robert "Not called the Wheel of Time for nothing" Jordan in terms of length; sure, only Richard, Kahlan and Jagang ever really pulled their weight, but at least Goodkind had the guts to say, "Enough".

The Final Chapter In A Fantasy Series category is also guaranteed to involve the reader in a thrilling escapade (often more thrilling than the one with the characters in it), to whit, the Adventure of Can the Author Tie Off A Decade's Worth of Plot Threads in Six Hundred Pages. It can be done. Feist pulled it off admirably with A Darkness at Sethanon, even David Eddings managed it with the last book of the Mallorean. Goodkind, in a literal sense, does so. Ten books worth of characters get their heads in, and they're not all cameos, either - several small characters play important parts, including Richard's magic-free sister and Adie the blind witch.

Richard and Kahlan, the couple at the heart of it all, play the biggest parts. Goodkind has always devoted his maximum effort to the character of Richard Rahl, and it shows. Even stripped of his powers, deep within an enemy camp, chained, and forced to compete in a brutal spectator sport, he turns the situation into probably the book's most thrilling moment - a Gladiator-influenced attack on the Emperor's right to rule, from a position of apparent weakness. It's a sequence darker, dirtier and less predictable than the typical fantasy fare, panoramic, yet controlled. This is how Goodkind drew us all in to begin with - a balance of invention, convention, and extremes, with the author's personality as a firm hand on the tiller.

Goodkind undeniably engineers an exciting beginning for this final instalment. Our heroes are enslaved, besieged, and magically ravaged by a spell that steals their memories and power. The appeal of the fantasy genre lies in expounding simple, ancient memes: The tiny hero prevailing against terrifying odds, great power that comes at a great cost, and the high, wild places of the mind. (Quick thinkers will note that Tolkien thus created and perfected the genre in the same frankly unbeatable trilogy. They may also note that the Bible, plus editing and an elf or two, would fit neatly into the genre.) Goodkind, above all other considerations of prose, pacing and so on, understands what his readers want out of the genre, including, as Confessor proves, endings.

The bad

Conversely, in fantasy, the trouble starts when the readers get a bit too familiar with what the AUTHOR wants out of the genre - for instance freedom from the obligation to innovate, demonstrate character through action, or even gauzily conceal a hundred pages of libertarian proselytising. Look, the fantasy genre, perhaps penultimate only to pulp romance, relies on the audience's willingness not simply to suspend disbelief, but also conventional standards of literary judgement. Glacial pacing, fairy-tale causality, melodramatic prose, and a total lack of thematic or subtextual elements can all often be ignored when one finds oneself galloping across the plains of the mind's eye toward the distant peaks above which darkness gathers, nothing between oneself and the indifferent wilderness but a wool cloak and a sword across the back. For the first four books of his series, Goodkind achieved this and more - he took the stock template, shrunk it to a scale we could digest, added romance, original creatures, S&M mistresses in red leather, magical entitlements as much curse as a blessing, then turned the whole thing up five notches and put an R rating on it. He built the story so well that the upcoming TV series, "Legend of the Seeker" (good work with the title, cockheads. 'Wizard's First Rule' just wasn't utterly, utterly generic enough) will have no small selection of pebbles to turn into a landslide. If it doesn't suck balls and die. Which it probably will.

Confessor, like its recent predecessors, simply doesn't live up to the early books. Not, of course, for any of the literary lackings listed above, but simply because, aside from Richard's foray into Rollerball, it neither functions as, nor internally delivers, a suitably spectacular climax. Any disinterested observer could see that Goodkind's tedious, patronising, and increasingly intrusive objectivist/libertarian nonsense takes up so much space between the static characters describing exactly what they're thinking for pages and pages and pages, that there would need to be another entire book just to fit a climax in. Before adopting the family surname, Richard Rahl goes by Richard Cypher, and this is exactly what he became for Goodkind. When an author of fiction convinces himself that characters are the holes where his opinion comes out, it's time to take the pen away.

Look, I'm sure, in Confessor, Goodkind earnestly wanted to deliver a knockout climax. He obviously enjoys what he does for a living, and takes a great, great, GREAT pride in his work. But the fantasy finale is a big ask, one reason why it's rare. On paper, as it were, Goodkind makes it work. He gives time to all his best characters (including a few fan-service touches), brings his plots to a head, and provides a reasonably surprising climactic moment. But at this late stage, sadly, his pacing is all over the shop - not amateurish, but mystifying. I actually found myself thinking, on several occasions, "There's only 150 pages left! Why are you telling me this AGAIN?" And tell you again he certainly fucking will. The pre-climactic buildup sequence somehow manages to be both fidgetingly predictable and pointlessly erratic. There's a character called Six, with almost no existence in the book other than as a teleporting spectre who picks things up and puts them down somewhere else. Yes, she looks pretty coo, but this is the last book and you need to put your fucking back into it, Goodkind. The same thing goes for the dragon, Gar, the Boxes of Orden, the Book of Counted Shadows, and Verna's undying love for Richard - this is the thrilling finale, so if they don't do anything except punch the clock, you might as well leave them out. Even Kahlan, Richard's lifelong love, possessor of powerful, unique magic (normally), warrior woman and germinator of some of the series' best plotlines (back when they were about two people in love despite every force in the universe trying to rip them apart), does fuck all. Seriously. She sits in a tent with amnesia, gets slapped a lot, then meets Richard at the end. This plotting decision could be forgiven if there was something more interesting going on elsewhere, but instead we keep RETURNING to Kahlan's impotent, memory-free zone so we can listen to her talking (to herself, internally) about how she thinks she was maybe in love with some guy maybe but doesn't remember but would probably know him if she saw him maybe. For pages. And pages. And pages. To what end, Goodkind? To what freakin' end?

The Goodkind of Confessor is a classic case of an author with delusions of grandeur. The problem is that grandeur, spectacle and scope are large parts of the fantasy landscape, and thus authors therein often need a bit of ego. Goodkind's skills lay in giving this grandeur a personal and emotional tone, set in the solid phrasing of morality. It wasn't a complex refrain, but more difficult to play than one might think. As the song went on, however, Goodkind began to return again and again to the same motifs, slowing down, and playing with less and less delicacy. By Confessor, we're listening to chopsticks - the arena version with eighteen special guests, sure, but it's still bloody chopsticks.

Goodkind's objectivist/libertarian megaphoning reach maximum volume here, too. The sad part is that his entire political agenda, good or evil, would've worked perfectly well unstated - it's not like there's shifting layers of meaning to conceal it. Perhaps it'll come across on TV less gratingly, manifested in the (not complicated) motivations and actions of the characters. In Confessor, however, Goodkind's extremely basic philosophy is restated a record number of times, and after eleven books showcasing it with ever-decreasing subtlety, the author still lacks the most elemental cognition of ambiguity. For instance, he sketches into his proselytising the worst example of U.S. tail-chasing foreign policy without even realising it: When the evil Imperial Order's forces kill civilians in the name of their cause this is, of course, the end product of their socialist/theocratic Commie/Muslim worldview. Once the Order has ravaged a city and forced its people to swear fealty at sword-point, however, the innocents are now officially Enemy Combatants. By failing to defy their million-strong oppressors - sorry, "harbouring the enemy", they have switched from innocent to Part of the Problem. Forces of the Empire may now collateralise their Godless asses with a clear conscience. If any of this sounds familiar, that's because it's A- a key tenet of Bush's post-9/11 doctrine, and B- exactly what the terrorists are thinking when they blow up kids. Not only is "If you're not with us, you're against us," a ridiculously binary view of the world, but it doesn't even function logically within its own tiny parameters. Goodkind, in true American form, demonstrates this without noticing he's done it: He reduces the totality of human existence to armies of Good/Us and Bad/Them, incidentally proving that, as long as there are still people wandering around who AREN'T IN THE ARMY, this won't fucking work.

Confessor is the end of a series that had been getting steadily worse. That's all that I can think of to summarise it. If it had come earlier it probably would've been better, but if you've read the whole Sword of Truth and want to know how it ends, then, like me, you wont be able to bring yourself to hate it. It's badly paced, yet a couple of points are so shockingly un-climactic that they actually intrigue, and the final resolution is such a simple bit of wish-fulfilment that it may well strike a chord. If you've come this far, check it out. If you haven't, but you read fantasy, go straight to book one (it's much more fun, apart from anything), and if you don't, then wait for the TV show - it should be good for a laugh.

What I learnt

Thanks to youtube, I learned that Goodkind in motion looks less like a gun-stockpiling militiaman lunatic than his author photo would suggest. Why he would want to look like one AT ALL is just one of those many questions which haunt sane people who enjoy the occasional wander through this genre.

In short

Title: Confessor
Author: Terry Goodkind
Publisher: Tor books
ISBN: 978-0765354303
Year published: 2011
Pages: 768
Genre(s): Fiction, Fantasy
Review Type: