exactly that

Something that was marked in the “loved” side of the Love-Hate  relationship I have with Terry Goodkind’s Sword of Truth Series (which, I don’t care what he says, is a fantasy fiction series, so there. If you didn’t want to write fantasy, you should have picked a different genre, setting, concept, whatever, for your pedantic preaching… I mean, you had a dragon who could speak, and a chicken which was an incarnation of evil) was the variety of characters that showed up throughout the course of the twelve books. Incidentally, it is the longest series I have ever read, and I almost quit in the middle of Faith of the Fallen, regardless of the fact that my favorite character was developed in that particular book.

One strike in the “hate” column, were it possible for me to keep up with the number of things I hated, is the way that Goodkind took incredibly interesting women characters and wrote them into incredible tropes whose sole purpose was to serve the whims of the principle protagonist, who might be the most annoying man I have ever read written into (fantasy) fiction, ever. And I have read some Star Wars fiction, and all of the Twilight books.

I am not sure if it annoyed me more or less that these women characters were from most perspectives, well, awesome. I fell in love with them on most fronts. The first of many, Kahlan, was undoubtedly one of the most unusual characters I’ve ever met in fiction. She was a matriarch of sorts over all of the Midlands with a rare and incredible power.

As a Confessor she commanded respect from everyone who crossed her path, or that was how things were intended to be. Until, that is, she met and fell in love with Richard Cypher, who turned out to be *spoilerspoilerspoiler* the heir to the Rahl line. A woman who is used to having kings and queens bow to her ultimate and unquestionable authority suddenly has her reign usurped by her fiancée and doesn’t seem to mind because she can still rule by his side. Once they are married.

In my mind it was fun to have this woman placed in a position of ultimate power only to have her toppled by the parties of men. Another Queen, who happens to be Kahlan’s sister by a coincidence, is also dethroned, then brutally raped and beaten until she literally goes insane by a group of misogynistic marauding men working for the Ultimate Evil Socialist Baddie (I am not kidding). The women who run the Palace of the Prophets, a group of powerful sorceresses who train young wizards, have their palace usurped and destroyed out from under them. This theme did not go unnoticed. /digression

Kahlan’s father taught her everything he knew about war and survival, and as a result she knew how to train young soldiers who were outnumbered greatly and spent more time leading armies than Richard — who was prophesied to lead the final battle against the great Socialist Evil. But love conquers all, right? When Richard decides that he must throw out the laws of the old Midlands and unite them under D’Hara (even though it doesn’t work), Kahlan, flinching momentarily, does anything she can to support Richard. Goodkind even goes to great pains to show her failing when she goes against Richard’s advice — even though it doesn’t make sense given her educational background, her personality, or the strength of her character and her power. One of the most absurd aspects of the story is that some of the greatest power she wields can only be invoked on behalf of Richard. And that particular point is never fully explained. I will never be able to fully explain all the ways that I loved Kahlan so much, and was so disappointed and frustrated at the same time with how her character was written.

I don’t know, though, if it measures up to the way that I became righteously indignant in behalf of Nicci. When Nicci was first introduced, I wasn’t aware that I would ever see Nicci again since she seemed to be an aside character, one of those cardboard cutouts who serve as a momentary evil tool of the devil Keeper of the Underworld. Then I was remotely aware that she would turn up again — the whole “I’m going to kill Richard” thing gave it away — but didn’t imagine that she would develop to the point that I would find her the most amazing person in the series. Hands down.

But.

Nicci spent the last third of the series being a martyr for Richard’s needs. Worrying about Richard’s health. What was best for Richard. Sleepless weeks studying ancient tomes because Richard doesn’t know squat about his own abilities, and Nicci has more than enough for three wizards and five sorceresses. In spite of Richard knowing exactly jack about being a wizard he magically is able to pull miraculous theory out of his arse so he can save Nicci’s life. Save. Her. Life. Because the most contrived plot points meant to show that Richard can do anything no matter how many times these incredibly educated women attempt to teach him anything, he instantly proves them wrong in the most amazing ways.

During the last third of the series, Nicci is constantly being shoved to Richard as a love interest, with whom she has fallen in love but is trying to keep that feeling buried, and she goes to great pains to help him in whatever way he needs because of this. She makes herself a sacrifice to Richard, and in the end, she is fulfilled because Richard is happy, even if it almost kills her in the process. She takes on heroic acts of selflessness because it doesn’t matter if she dies so long as the thing that makes Richard happy and successful comes to fruition. These things just don’t add up to her character development.

The Mord-Sith, Cara, who is sworn to Richard’s side is one of the most feared women in all the Midlands, known for the legendary torture that turns her into a weapon for the Lord Rahl. After Richard becomes the great hero who sets all Mord-Sith free, Cara chooses to be his personal guard. Now, Cara is badass, even as the lore created by Goodkind — who has no problem describing the torture and abuse of women as a plot device to show how horrible a bad guy can be — is as fascinating to me as it is triggering and problematic. Tougher than iron spikes and determined to show you that no man can scare her let alone better her at anything, the thanks Cara gets for throwing her life in front of danger for Richard’s protection is Richard’s insistence that she needs to be “more feminine”. Somehow her lack of desire to swaddle babies and feed squirrels makes her less feminine, because there is obviously only one definition. Cara is the stereotype of “strong female character” in that she is supposed to be the “anti-female” or something, but she is witty and clever and endearing, but there is a never-ending side-story to make her into a better, softer woman.

The series is rife with graphic descriptions of violence against women. Rape and gory death drawn out in great detail. A serial killer who rapes and strangles prostitutes to ensure that everyone knows that they are less than human. A man who cuts off the nipples of women to control them with magic. Rape scene after rape scene described to ensure you know just how evil someone is. Women reduced to sex slaves by the “bad guy”. Combined with subtle message after little detail that ensures you know that gender roles are expected not only in the Midlands, D’Hara, and all of the New World, but in the heart of the philosophy that is being pounded by the beaten horse in this Randian-lite crap, the utter contempt that Terry Goodkind has for women shines through in what would have been an incredibly enjoyable series.

And I’ve only scratched the surface. I’d have to go, book by book, to get more in-depth.

It baffles me the way that someone can write incredible women with depth and amazing attributes and still demonstrate a full-on hatred for them with the stories and plots written out for them. The way their lives unfold and the arcs stretch on, at times, made me weep with anger. To this day I can’t figure out how I can hate a series so much and enjoy it at the same time.

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Comments on: "How To Dress Up Misogyny In Fantasy Fiction" (11)

  1. Thank you – you make me grateful that I never picked up one of his books, even though I might have missed out on some awesome women characters by doing so at least I’ll never have to hurl them across the room when Goodkind decides to demean them so his hero can shine more brightly.

    I’m not sure why I never picked up the first one – just something about it put me off. Then I remember reading that he was a Randian, and I never wanted to touch them after that.

    And WTF is this pretentious crap about his stuff not being “just” fantasy because he deals with “philosophical and human themes”? Like wow, no other fantasy writer ever did that before, really indeed. None of that in Lord of the Rings, or Narnia, or even Wind in the Willows. Not a sausage.

    As to the rape and torture of women misogyny in fantasy fashion, it’s grown to the point where I would not now pick up a fantasy novel by an unknown-to-me male author and trust it to not trivialise the pain of women just for plot-point shits and giggles. I used to be able to do that 10 years ago.

    • Oh, totes. And bright and shiny he does come out!

      For lots of fun you can visit Goodkind’s website (which I am not linking to) and see how he answers questions from fans. What a self-important arse. I can not imagine being so well-liked by fans and treating them such, and denying to fans of fantasy what they see in front of them.

      It is odd, the way I hurt for these characters as if they were real people. I over-empathize or something.

  2. You know, the major problem with Goodkind is that stylistically, he’s a really good writer. My major reason for really enjoying that series at all was that I could fall into it and imagine it more clearly than anything I had ever read before. That said, if we go based on style and nothing else, Ayn Rand is a good writer too. Thats a lot of her attraction to younger people that haven’t had a chance to really think about social theory. Thats why you find a lot of intelligent, reasonable people that are not asshole Randian Libertarians listing “Atlas Shrugged” as their favorite book.

    I never knew that Goodkind was a Randian, though in retrospect that is hardly surprising considering his obvious contempt for anything even vaguely related to socialism and the absurd ubermensch that he builds Richard into.

  3. That’s an interesting point which makes me re-examine my own, highly personal, definition of “good writing”.

    If I switch to pure lit-crit mode, there are certain people I can view as “good” writers based just on how they structure their dialogue, vividly describe the action and build their narrative arcs.

    But for me, me, me as a reader? I simply can’t accept someone as a *really* good writer if they screw up character development to the degree that women and other underlings become degraded cyphers and Our Hero sets absolutely everything to rights.

    • True…I don’t know how “good” I consider him. He frequently reiterates the main plot details as if you haven’t been paying attention for the past six books, or even the past three chapters. And Oh! Richard! How he can soliloquize for pages on end! I imagine him as standing on top of a hilltop every time (no matter where they are) holding the Sword of Truth (even if he has conveniently left it elsewhere or it has been pilfered, since the Sword of Truth series is absent the Sword of Truth for about 2/3 of way) aloft a la Masters of the Universe with his voice echoing out of the sky in some self-important way. (Yet, I always see him as the whiny guy who plays him in Legend of the Seeker. My imagination isn’t that good I suppose, LOL, because Kahlan is always Bridget Regan, but Nicci is way more awesome than either actress because I think they got her all R-O-N-G.)

      Yet, I enjoyed the idea of the story. Like, somewhere, I have a notebook of ways I would have done it better or could have been all “woah! Terry! You can’t DO that!”.

      The odd thing is, I haven’t read any Rand, and it was glaringly obvious that he was a great big Randian by Faith of the Fallen. Possibly before, but I was only vaguely aware. But I am with Tig here, I can’t get on with an author being “good” if they have to be that overtly misogynistic.

      /rant

      ETA: I should add, the story, the world description, the magical system, the way one story feeds into another…it was all beautiful. I actually learned a few things too, about trees and I grew up in a wilderness (practically). The wizadry, the Confessors…I loved it. I have never been so conflicted by a book series.

  4. You guys are completely right, I just have a screwy way of defining things as “good” or “bad.” Don’t even try to discuss movies with me, we’ll never come to an understanding of those two terms :)

    And to be fair I started reading these books a decade ago as a teenager that was barely into social justice/awareness in any real way. And I read them as they came out. When Faith of the Fallen came out I had no idea who Ayn Rand was or that Libertarians were anything more than the one guy I knew that was one because it was the one political party that would let him smoke pot legally. In retrospect almost a decade later this stuff is highly obvious, it just wasn’t something that even entered my awareness the first time I experienced the majority of the series.

    • Oh, yeah, I am not saying “DORI I CAN’T BELIEVE YOU DIDN’T SEE THAT!!!11!!ELEVENTY!!!1!”. I picked up on some of it. My partner and I had to discuss some of it, because at one point I was convinced that Rand was also a misogynist, and he had to describe Atlas to me (as apart from what I witnessed in Bioshock).

      I miss a lot of things in many books I love, since I have had such a high, quick, smack-me-in-the-face-as-I-go learning curve in the social justice world.

      Did you read the last three, Chainfire, Phantom and Confessor as they came out, as one book, or as three? Those three I mostly enjoyed (except for the story arc where everyone decided Nicci should throw herself at Richard and then she was left alone and, IMO, hurting in the end, and possibly having took chances because she knew she wouldn’t wind up with him in the end blah blah blah). I got caught up in it, and it really frustrated me, plus the way the spell was so well woven was really well done…

      /babbling (again)

      • I read them as they came out as three books, and for the first time since Blood of the Fold I was actually really swept up in the entire thing. By this time I was aware of how ick so much of the series was so I was really looking for a good wrap up to the characters that I had come to care for.

        But as good as they were, they definitely felt somewhat rushed. Amorphous underworld creature attracted to Richard’s gift? Suddenly killing off Ann? And of course the throwing Nicci at Richard, all of that felt very sloppy to me. And the ending was…anticlimactic.

        I really feel like I enjoy this series because it has the potential to be so good without the bullshit.

        • That was mostly my feelings on those three books. I was also frustrated because I kept feeling like somehow Kahlan was going to just break through it all without my having to read another brutal description of her having her bones broken. Parts of the abuse scenes made me cry and have to put the books down — partly because they were triggering and partly because it just frustrated me to see this woman who was so incredibly amazing reduced to this.

          The end was another one of those convenient “precious endings” that I would finish and I was all “Really?”, but at that point, with the corner he wrote into I didn’t see how he was going to finish it off and still give Richard his masturbatory dream of the perfect world where socialism was evil and disabled people didn’t exist to drain on the Good Strong Working Man.

          There’s another book coming out in 2011 (?) and because I either have some wish to put myself through pain or I have to finish sets (it’s the latter), I will probably read that one as well, since it is described as ” A Richard and Kahlan story in the truest sense”. Wev. I’ll let you know what I think unless you beat me to it.

  5. Though I know its been a bit since this was posted, it makes me glad that I never read the books. I watched the TV series’ first season only and liked it enough to get the books, but after talking to a (male) bibliophile, I didn’t want to read them, and not even for the reasons here. He only mentioned his issues with the main character, Richard, who is, essentially a male Mary-Sue. He becomes increasingly more powerful as the story progresses, to a point that it becomes ridiculous. I’ve always hated books with protagonists like this, and that immediately turned me off. My boyfriend’s brother is reading the series and is trying to get me to read it, and I go back to not wanting to read it after this.

    • As much crap as I hear about how the books are so much better and that the show dove from the source material faster than a shark, the show created better characters, and felt more honest. I would have watched more seasons of that, and would have liked to see it re-tell the books in a less jacked-up way. The books had so much potential. I spent so much of them just going D: D: D: thinking it would all get better, then realizing it wouldn’t. It got worse. The second season, however, took…um, odd turns.

      They are not awful books…just terribly written by someone with so much ego and filled with way too much philosophical rhetoric for my taste. I would read them again, because there is good inspiration for developing good fantasy there.

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