Volume 24, Number 3, Spring 2006


By Terry Goodkind

Tor, 2005, $7.99 , ISBN 0765344319
Reviewed by Rick Triplett

Chainfire is one of my favorites of all the books I’ve read this year. I didn’t like it at first, but it grew on me—a lot! This book is the ninth installment in what has come to be known as The Sword of Truth series. I had not read the previous books, but author Terry Goodkind is careful to give plenty of back-story, so that each book can stand alone. His setting resembles our Middle Ages, but with the addition of magic.

Because this universe contains magic, the series is more fantasy than science fiction. This can be a problem for some readers, but Goodkind is a strong advocate of reason, using magic only as a plot device: it is not capricious, it is learnable, as one might learn different rules of physics in an alternate world. Zedd, a respected teacher in this universe, speaks for the main characters when he says, “In reality, contradictions cannot exist. To believe in them you must abandon the most important thing you possess: your rational mind. The wager for such a bargain is your life. In such an exchange, you always lose what you have at stake.”

Chainfire is the story of Richard Rahl, who is a hero in every sense, an individualist, and a passionate champion of liberty. Historically, he is Lord Rahl, current holder of a hereditary title as leader of his country and its people. He is also the first in a long line of Rahls who does not want power. His people for the most part have trouble with the idea of not having a powerful leader, and Rahl spends much of his time trying to get them to think in more liberated ways. There are two plot threads in Chainfire: one is the threat of war from the evil, tyrannical regime to the north, led by Jagang; the other is the romance between Rahl and his missing wife (or does he only imagine her?). Rahl’s greatest challenge is to hang on to his independent judgment while battling magic, a large army, disagreements with his closest friends, and the mystery of the wife whom he claims has disappeared.

If you remember your objectivism, you cannot miss its influence upon Terry Goodkind, who paints a convincing and moving portrait of a man driven by a fundamental love of life, independence, rational egoism, and responsibility. Note how Rahl describes his people’s revolt against the tyrant, Jagang and his Order:

The revolt had been opposed by a good number of people who supported the Imperial Order, who wanted things to continue the way they were. There were many who believed that people were wicked and deserved no more out of their lives than misery. Such people believed that happiness and accomplishment were sinful, that individuals, on their own, could not make their own lives better without causing harm to others. Such people scorned the very idea of individual liberty.

For the most part, those people had been defeated—either killed in the fighting or driven away. Those who had fought for and won their liberty had fierce reasons to value it. Richard hoped that they would have the will to hang on to what they had won.

He knew, too, that it was the simple, sincere happiness of people pursuing their own interests and living their lives for the sake of themselves that would draw the hate and wrath of some. The followers of the Order believed that mankind was inherently evil. Such people would stop at nothing to suffocate the blasphemy of happiness.

Some reviewers have complained about the length of Goodkind’s novels and about his multi-paragraph “speeches.” His novels are indeed long, which means that if you don’t like his writing style, you will have even more to dislike. He does write detailed descriptions of each location in the story, and he lingers on characters’ thought processes and on the meaning behind events. I enjoyed these passages, and they certainly helped me to understand the characters and the actions they took. His prose flows smoothly and is free of awkwardly complicated sentences, but if you are looking for lighter or more conventional philosophy, this book may not please you.

After his country revolted and inaugurated freedom, Rahl makes this remark about Altu’Rang, where he lived:

Now, at stands on almost every corner, bread was plentiful and starvation looked to have receded into nothing more than a horrific memory. It was amazing to see how freedom had made everything so plentiful. It was amazing to see so many people in Altu’Rang smiling.

Of course, there are many in this world who would prefer to “share” responsibility, rather than take it on fully. Rahl considers such people misguided at best, and probably dangerous. To a witch he meets, he says, “You see, despite what friends and loved ones want for me, or hope I will achieve, it’s my life and I decide what I will try to make of it. People can plan or hope all they want for those they care about, but in the end it is each individual who must take responsibility for their own life and make the choice for themselves.” This much responsibility can be scary, so it’s nice to have a story that encourages us to be our best.

Chainfire is a libertarian novel, both in its explicit expression of ethics and politics, and in its depiction of the philosophy and the personal traits on which a free society probably has to be based. I think that most people who read this book will at least partially reconstruct their ideas about goodness, and for the better. These people will be like the young person, who could not help using Richard’s hereditary title:

She swallowed, “Yes, Lord Rahl.”

He put a hand on her shoulder and smiled. “Richard. I am a Lord Rahl who wants people to be safe to live as they wish.”

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