The good news about Chainfire is that it is a much better than book than the previous one, Naked Empire. The bad news is that Naked Empire set such a low standard that this isn’t saying much. Chainfire isn’t awful, like Naked Empire. It isn’t even all that bad (except in parts). But it also isn’t all that good. Mostly it’s a serviceable novel moving us toward the series’ end, one which probably should have come a few books ago.
Starting with the positive… Chainfire manages to escape the awfulness of Naked Empire by actually having a sense of plot and character. In fact, its premise is one of its best aspects and returns us to the excellence of the first few books. The story begins with Richard waking from being healed and being the only one to remember Kahlan; somehow memory of her very existence has been wiped clean. With the memories also goes the impact she has had on so many people, though much more gradually. The rest of the book focuses almost exclusively on Richard’s search for Kahlan in the face of utter disbelief by those closest to him, who believe he has been damaged by his near-death experience and must be “healed” of his delusions. As mentioned, the good news is that we are back to a relatively tight plot, one which is pretty fast-paced throughout most of the book. The side plot involving Jagang’s new villain “monster” in the story is also a nice touch of creativity, though not enough is done with it.
While nothing new comes from Richard or the other stock characters in the book (Cara, Zebb, etc.), there is some further exploration of Nicci. On the one hand, this return to focusing more on character than philosophy is a plus; on the other hand, her characterization is at times so simple that it is a negative.
The final positive note is that Goodkind has cut down severely on his preaching in this book. Unfortunately, it still isn’t reduced enough and so the reader is beset by more long, obvious passages extolling Ayn Rand-style ideas of individualism, free will, the evil of altruism or socialism, etc. To be absolutely clear here, I am not criticizing the philosophy itself (my views on it are irrelevant) nor stating that Goodkind has no right to put philosophy in his books. What I am criticizing is his poor execution. In almost every one of these types of situations, the story comes to a halt while Richard waxes faux-eloquent on the grandness of free will. It is obvious, it is simplistic, it is repetitive, it is often contrived, it almost always drags the story to a stop. It’s not bad writing because the philosophy is necessarily bad; it’s bad writing because the writing is so bad. The only reason it is an improvement on Naked Empire is that there is less of it and it is surrounded by story.
If this were the only flaw, then Chainfire wouldn’t be quite so disappointing. Outside of the interesting premise, we’ve seen too much of this story before. Richard and Kahlan separated, each one grittily holding to their “spirit,” Richard pressured to do something he doesn’t want to do, Cara’s love of Richard imperiling her, the danger of prophecy, the speeches, and so on. The books are losing their freshness and the series probably should have been condensed into five or six books and allowed to end there. The characterization seems to be retreating as the hero-worship of Richard is getting to be a bit much. Cara loves him, Nicci loves him, Shota loves him, the blacksmith loves him. Again, with a little better writing, some sense of sophistication and depth to these relationships, Goodkind could have gotten away with this, but it’s just too shallowly done. Some of the plotting is a bit contrived and the obtuseness of some of the characters a bit hard to believe in places.
Finally, I have to admit, the similarities to The Wheel of Time series are beginning to numb me a bit as a reader as I try to recall to myself “am I remembering this from an earlier Goodkind novel or an earlier Jordan novel?” The former head of a female order who pretends to be dead/powerless traveling with a former enemy/friend. The books one can write in across distances. The prophecies. One begins to wonder if one has entered a parallel universe where The Wheel of Time doesn’t exist but the same story has been written, just under a different title.
In the end, Chainfire probably seems a better book than it is just because the last few have been so bad. It’s a step up compared to recent memory, but still a lower tier book when placed in relation to the early ones. But it is readable, the speeches easily skimmed, and it is even enjoyable in much of it. Most importantly, it moves us toward a close, which has become a clear necessity.