By the time a series particularly a VLFN series has reached its third volume, typically only the true believers are left. Lots of readers will check out the first book or two of a series, but to get them to book three, an author really has to deliver the goods. And no one could deny that Terry Goodkind has done that in spades, turning in a zillion-word saga of brutal, in-your-face sword and sorcery that few other authors would have the intestinal fortitude to conceive.
But as entertaining as Wizard's First Rule and Stone of Tears are, they are also pretty damned exhausting and uncompromising pieces of legendry, and even this series' hardiest fans could be excused from going wide-eyed in trepidation at the prospect of following Richard and Kahlan through yet another relentless ordeal in which the fate of absolutely everything hangs in the balance. "Dear God," you groan, "what could possibly be left to tell?" After vanquishing Darken Rahl (twice!) and putting the Keeper of the Underworld squarely in his place, you just want to tell Terry Goodkind to be good and kind to Richard and Kahlan and give them their long overdue vacation time already.
Well, to his credit, Goodkind chooses to shift gears somewhat with the third installment, which, while shorter than his previous tomes at only 623 paperback pages, is still a shelf-bender. In Blood of the Fold, the threat to the world's harmony is not simply some supernatural dark lord, but primarily human. Evil people, moreso than evil gods, are Richard's prime antagonists here, and this greater emphasis on the human side of his saga which was reasonably strong to begin with allows Goodkind to flesh out some of the supporting characters to good effect (Kahlan herself barely puts in an appearance until the novel's final third). In many ways, this is the most satisfying entry in the saga up to this point. The action is leaner and meaner, and the novel's climax is as breathless as that of Wizard's First Rule.
Yet at the same time, an uneasy feeling is beginning to creep up on you that this series is just a hair away from the dreaded treadmill. If Goodkind's next opus doesn't offer up a heck of a lot more that is fresh and different, he will fall into the worst sort of formula trap imaginable: that of endlessly recycling the same story ad infinitum. It's been a good fun so far, but as far as having Richard and Kahlan repeatedly save the world over and over again from the Keeper and his minions well, Terry, you've spent that nickel. The next one has gotta be new.
Quickly, the synopsis: The Midlands are threatened by evil forces on both sides. From the west, the Blood of the Fold, an Inquisition-like army of zealots led by the delusional Tobias Brogan, who believes he's the Creator's right hand man when naturally he is being manipulated by the Keeper of the Underworld the whole time. And from the southeast in the Old World, the emperor Jagang, a vile despot who wants to use the prophecies kept in the Palace of the Prophets (home of the Sisters of the Light and the corrupt, secret Sisters of the Dark), and the spell cast over the palace that dramatically extends the lifespans of those who live there, to consolidate his evil power. In the Midlands capital of Aydandril, Richard forces an alliance between the Midlands' multiple kingdoms, effectively making the Midlands part of D'Hara in the interest of uniting against Jagang's Imperial Order. But Richard soon learns that there is much more threatening the peace and harmony of the New World, as it appears that many prophecies from the misty, legendary past are coming true.
In deference to Goodkind's prodigious creative output, there is literally too much plot to synopsize in a single, simple review without making the review nearly the size of the novel itself. By now, the Sword of Truth saga has become impressively complex without for the most part falling into the morass of incomprehensible clutter that plagues other multibook VLFN sagas (notably Jordan's). Both Tobias and Jagang are estimable villians, though Jagang gets lamentably little stage-time. (But Goodkind has never really had his arch-baddies in the spotlight much, preferring to focus on the internal conficts and turmoils of his leads.) And it all moves much more briskly this time, too, with a couple of genuine white-knuckle action scenes and a thankfully reduced emphasis on brutality and sadism (though that's not altogether gone Tobias, for example, has a thing for hacking off womens' nipples).
But Goodkind flubs here and there, particularly toward the end, as some scenes fail to explain themselves adequately and certain characters' behaviors seem unconvincing at key moments. These are the most explicit indications that Goodkind is in peril of letting the whole thing run away with itself unless he does some serious gear-swiching next episode. That he leaves you willing to keep going at the end of Blood of the Fold — in spite of the fact the whole series has run nearly 1.2 million words by this point — is laudable in and of itself. But now, Goodkind will find himself tested in much the same way he has been testing Richard. It will be interesting to see if The Sword of Truth manages to keep its edge.