It was the pirate flag flying atop the plumbing truck that first caught his attention. The white skull and crossbones seemed to be straining to keep from being blown off the flapping black flag as the flatbed truck, apparently trying to beat the light, cannonballed through the intersection. The truck heeled over as it cut an arc around the corner. White PVC pipe rolled across the diamond plate of the truck bed, sounding like the sharp rattle of bones. At the speed it was traveling, the truck looked to be in danger of capsizing. (p. 1)
The Law of Nines, American writer Terry Goodkind's twelfth book and the first of three purportedly "thriller" books to be published by Putnam/Penguin, opens with a curious scene. Regardless of what one might think of the author and his previous books, that first paragraph is certainly attention-grabbing. One might be pardoned for a moment if she imagines The Law of Nines to be a story about a band of rogue pirate plumbers cruising the highways and by-ways of America, looking for septic booty to plunder. Such a story might make for a wild adventure that would also contain the possibility of possessing deeper, more meaningful passages than is the norm for the thriller subgenre. Alas, The Law of Nines is not the pirate plumber escapade that we might have wanted.
Instead, we get a story that tries, and often fails, to conform to general expectations of what would constitute a good, action thriller. Although I am not particularly well-versed in thriller lit, the few good ones tend to establish their premises, no matter how stretched and unbelievable they might be if considered for more than five seconds, early on in the story. If the late Don LaFontaine couldn't do his "In a world where..." description in less than thirty seconds if he were asked to do a "trailer" for a book such as The Law of Nines, then it would be probably be a sucky thriller, since the motivations would be too murky. Here in this novel, Goodkind dilly-dallies around setting up the conflicts. Although he eventually gets the motivations for the good/bad sides into a relatively easy to follow form later in the novel, the beginning of this book is rather disjointed. Where are those awesome plumbing pirates? What about that mysterious girl that the main lead, Alexander Rahl (for those who have read Goodkind's near-interminable The Sword of Truth series, yes, it's that Rahl feeling that you're experiencing now) rescues from the Jolly Roger plumbers? No, instead we get a scene between Alex and his grandfather Ben (one has to wonder at the pattern in Goodkind's novels of having fathers die grisly deaths off-screen before the story begins) that is a bit...well....
"I think the mirrors are watching me," Alex said as he stared off into distant thoughts.
Ben shot him a look back over his shoulder. "Mirrors tend to do that."
"No, I mean it, Ben. Lately it feels like they're watching me."
"You mean you see yourself watching you."
"No." He finally focused his gaze on his grandfather. "I mean it feels like someone else is watching me through mirrors."
Ben gave him a look. "Someone else." (p. 23)
In reading it, I was wondering if Goodkind might have decided to create an homage to Jorge Luis Borges' "Fauna of Mirrors," which contains this passage:
In those days the world of mirrors and the world of men were not, as they are now, cut off from each other. They were, besides, quite different; neither beings nor colors nor shapes were the same. Both kingdoms, the specular and the human, lived in harmony; you could come and go through mirrors. One night the mirror people invaded the earth. Their power was great, but at the end of bloody warfare the magic arts of the Yellow Emperor prevailed. (The Book of Imaginary Beings, p. 105)
However awesome it might have been to have seen Goodkind "lift" story motifs from Borges rather than from Robert Jordan and Robert Ludlum, Goodkind's "mirror people" are more akin to government agencies peeking on you while you're taking a shit sort of baddies. Although I have not read the final four volumes of Goodkind's SoT series, apparently there was a closing scene where a Lord Rahl opens up/creates a new, unmagical world for those who've opposed him who want to move away from anything to do with magic. The baddies (and belatedly, the noble, life-loving good people) have discovered how to peek in on the world of Orden, Nebraska (itself a reference to a SoT object, as Goodkind seems determined to dip often into the well of his fantasy series rather than even attempting to create a thriller that resembles anything even remotely plausible) and they are after something that Alex will inherit on his 27th birthday, some that has to do with a confluence of 3's and 9's that constitute what I found to be a ridiculously-explained "Law of Nines."
It must be said in Goodkind's favor that there are several exciting scenes, such as Alex and the now-named Jax Amnell (yes, she's named after the children's game of Jacks, but with a cool spelling that makes me think of Mortal Kombat, and a surname that is yet another SoTomical reference) discovering that all sorts of bad people can pop out of the air after using mirrors as a sort of GPS, vicious attacks that lead to near-death and (a Goodkind staple, it seems) near-rape, a wild escape, and lots of ammo being fired. Described like that, there might be just enough action elements to satisfy the most vapid desires of those who just want action and nothing of a reflective, deeper level. Unfortunately for them (and for most readers), Goodkind tries to go "deeper."
Although thrillers, like most any story, need breaks from a staccato pace to make the action seem better in contrast, Goodkind clogs this story with numerous references to things back in the "mirror" land (or SoTdom) that for those who've read nothing or little of his previous fantasy stories, may be just a bit too unbelievable. Learning that the main baddie, Radell Cain (such a subtle name), has a) tried to create a "new reality" in painting (I suppose I should note here that Alex is a painter who doesn't make much money because he paints things of "beauty," as if that were an "objective" quality *cough*), b) in SoTdom he wants to eliminate magical use somehow, c) he wants to reactivate the gateway between the two worlds so cell phones, radios, and military weapons can be transported across dimensional borders, and d)is a mega-terrorist makes for a whole bunch of "Huh?" and "Buh?" after reading it. It is one thing to create a reductionist EVEEL character in order to simplify the story, but a totally different story to create one whose interests and motivations appear to be in deep conflict. Does this guy want to control one world, or two? If he wants a magic-free setting where he can rule, why not just take over the non-magical one? What the fuck does painting have to do with this? The mind, it is boggled.
Then there are the scenes that are a bit more graphic than the norm for thrillers. Alex's mom, Helen, has been confined to a mental hospital, Mother of Roses (with such a name, one might wonder if this is yet another dig at Goodkind's antagonistic relationship with the Catholic Church), ever since she turned 27 (dum, dum, dum!). Of course, she's not insane, but instead is injected with all sorts of psychotropic meds and a gratuitous amount of torture from the orderlies and nurses, who naturally are all Cain's henchmen and who are interested in some sort of secret that the last Rahls in both worlds possess. At this point, the mind may begin to glaze over, especially when Alex and Jax are drugged and captured while visiting Alex's mom and chapters worth of maniacal villainous gloating and beatings take place. If you've read even a one prior Goodkind novel, you will immediately recognize the form and substance of these beatings, minus the electric butt-plug of doom that was employed in the first SoT book.
This goes on for several chapters in the middle of the book and by this point, the story had broken down into a bunch of bad guys are after Alex and Jax. Although I suppose I should add that Alex, in addition to being a supposedly talented painter, is a marksman with a Glock and that he develops somehow the ability to slash a bunch of tendons and ligaments (yes, tendons and ligaments are slashed at a shockingly-high frequency in this novel, along with spines being severed or otherwise destroyed). My mind is still reeling from this horrible, horrible character development. Finally, after a bunch of slaying (maybe Alex and Jax could be thought of as being a more ridiculous and blood-drenched version of Vampire Slayers?), the two escape the mental hospital (naturally, mom is now dead) and Alex gets in contact with the lawyers about some land he has just inherited in BFE, Maine. Turns out that (of course!) that these lawyers are part of a secret, Rahlian society devoted to protecting the gateway that they sought for hundreds of years before discovering it in the 1600s. Nothing says sensible thriller like having a weird secret society whose main goal is to possess land until the Law of Nines is fulfilled. As might be expected in what has now become a farce of a thriller, there is a Cain sympathizer in their midst; he tries to stab Alex and just gets slashed to death in return.
And so it goes until the end, where Alex and Jax get to witness a mega-terrorist attack wave that really serves no end except to show that Cain is EVEEL! This is followed by some of the dumbest get the henchmen separated contrivances that I've ever read and a very silly knife/gun fight that ends with the knife wielder winning and order being restored. It is not a very thrilling conclusion and while the bad men are all wasted, apparently there will be more madcap adventures of Alex and Jax in the future.
Normally, I would spend some time here discussing Goodkind's prose. The problem is, there are so many misplaced metaphors and egregious errors in description (calm fury, anyone?) that dozens of pages could be devoted to the shittiness of the prose, which is two or three steps below even the norm for thrillers. Goodkind certainly does not write complex, flowing sentences. Nor does he know how to weave descriptions together to make a coherent image of a scene or of a character. If anything, he comes closest to Jim Theis' Eye of Argon in his maladroit use of simile, such as this little gem:
"There were a few people, driven by insanity, who, like salmon trying to swim upstream, were trying to push their way up the stairs against the flow of people coming down." (p. 375)Reading that for the first time made me wonder if they were going to spawn before they died. Not elegant at all, nor does it fit well with the scene, as a simpler "they went against the flow of people coming down" would have made much more sense and not left the reader wondering at what sort of imagery Goodkind wanted to create there. There are other quotes, but I'll let this one serve as a representative sample of Goodkind's inability to use metaphors and similes well.
Do I really need a full closing paragraph to denote just how poor of a novel The Law of Nines is? It is a barely readable, poorly-rendered take on a thriller whose take on mirror worlds makes John Twelve Hawks' stories read like Shakespeare for characterizations and Flaubert for mastery of prose. It fails in the creation of a plausible story, its characterizations are so shallow and stretched as to make a Mills & Boon character seem complex by comparison. It is perhaps the worst novel that I have read in years, with the possible exception of Eye of Argon and at least that novel had some (unintentional) entertaining elements to it. Needless to say, avoid at all costs, unless you just want to read it for masochistic reasons.