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



If this was a pair of pants, it would be brown leather riding trews, brutally polished but artfully worn, suitably antique in cut yet of no obvious period, comfortable enough in the saddle but far FAR too implicative for casual wear.

Cover

A typically uninspiring—both for the genre and the series—primarily plain black with a cover design nothing more complex than a woman’s silhouette photoshopped onto a band of flames. About the best thing you can say is that it doesn’t roar “Fantasy!!” in a lusty baritone when you’re on the train.

The plot

Some old rubbish about magic swords and shit.

*AHEM*

(draws new breath)

To pick up where we left off, as has always been the case so far, bare minutes after the ending of the previous book (which is slightly odd, given that they aren’t always cliffhangers):

The vast army of the Imperial Order marches inexorably across the new World. The only people who can stop them are hiding in a giant fortified lair called the Wizard’s Keep with their leader, Richard Rahl, who has now lost both his shiny magic sword (to an evil witch) and his shiny magic partner (to a big mutating spell which has made everybody else forget that she ever existed). On top of that, a bunch of naughty nuns called the Sisters of the Dark are trundling about with Richard’s now-forgotten wife Kahlan, gathering up the inevitable fantasy-world-nuclear-weapon-substitutes, in this case the Boxes of Orden, which have the potential to blow everything up, of course, but also to undo the spell of forgetfulness surrounding her. Can Terry fit any major plot developments into five hundred pages, or will we still be in basically the same spot by the end of the book?

The good

Yes and no. After a VERY slow start (it takes our heroes 220 pages to LEAVE THE BUILDING), things pick up a little bit, and in his normal megaphonic cliché-flirting style Mr. Goodkind manages one or two decent ideas. The general decay of all magic is still actually a much more effective tool of foreboding than any tediously reiterated threat of a brutal advancing army (which was original until about ten minutes after Tolkien published The Fellowship of the Rings)—although, speaking of which, Goodkind manages to head that one off at the pass in a thankfully unpredictable way.

The sliph and the immortal beast hunting Richard are perfect examples of Goodkind’s talents—they’re great plot ideas, not despite, but because of their straightforward effectiveness. And, while wallowing in the obvious at times, he still manages to use them in new ways when the story needs a shake-up.

So, to put it simply—in terms of the basics (Richard, Kahlan, gore, baddies, magic boxes, scope) Goodkind still manages to employ comforting archetypes who skirt cliché enough to keep us on our toes, and give the audience more of what they’ve become accustomed to. I can also happily note that, unlike a couple of his more recent works, the pace is fairly jaunty, and there’s a relievedly sane level of libertarian proselytising.

The main character’s broad, simple shoulders can still carry the necessary weight of the story, and the locations remain suitably epic, even if they are not employed as intriguingly here as is typical.

The bad

Not nearly enough actually happens, although at least this is disguised better with movement and colour than often recently. The problem is not with this lapidary pace, as such (he’s hardly the lone ranger in the genre there), but more with the complacency it signals. Goodkind has: a) clearly no intention of killing the goose that laid the magic sword anytime soon, and b) clearly no editor willing to pick up the hatchet themselves, now that a paying audience has been established. The scary part is that it makes a lot of sense, given an author’s willingness to throttle back to a slow plod, and I can only wonder why any willing fantasy writer with half an epic down his britches would bring it to a close unless he was completely out of spanners to throw into the works, if you’ll pardon seven or eight mixed metaphors in a single sentence (plus some minor exaggeration). Up until the last couple of episodes, at least a minor battle or step forward within the overall war was reached at the end of each book, but this lacks even that. To put is as obviously as possible, the book starts, everyone picks up where they left off, moves a few months forward in time, and then the paper runs out.

Too much is explained at too much length, in too much detail, whenever anybody opens their mouth anywhere near a plot point. It’s effective when you stop noticing, but grinds away when you can’t. Oddly, Goodkind’s equilibrium for background detail is a lot better balanced—unlike many fantasy writers he rarely spends four pages setting a visual scene if it’s not warranted, which, let’s face it, it rarely is. (There is another possible explanation for the turgidness of the prose, which can be completely explained if you read the review of the previous book I’d read—almost the total opposite of this one, in fact.)

The minor characters barely get a look in, and are 90% Basil Exposition when they do, which is particularly disappointing when they were once quite interesting (Zedd and Ann) or at least potentially so (Nicci).

Everybody talks about how great Richard (the hero) is ALL THE TIME. Yes, Goodkind always did this, but perversely he seems to be devoting MORE space to it as we go along. Even Ian bloody Fleming managed to give his minor characters something more interesting to talk about than how freaking great James Bond is.

Sigh.

When you get right down to it though, with fantasy, there’s really only one question that matters: Will I read the next one? And I will. But I’m feeling a lot more sheepish about it than I once did.

What I learnt

I think I finally realised just how long he’s planning to draw this out for.

Title: Phantom
Author: Terry Goodkind
Publisher: Tor Books
ISBN: 0765305240
Year published: 2006
Pages: 592

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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