Saturday, January 16, 2010

Magic Kingdom for Sale--Sold! by Terry Brooks

I've spent the last couple of decades convinced that I read this book in high school. I even remembered it rather well as being light, shallow, a little snide (which put me off even then), and mildly interesting. I picked up a used copy a few weeks ago and decided to reread it--and I don't know what book I got mixed up with this one, but I had definitely never read Magic Kingdom for Sale until now.

It's possible I started the book in high school and never finished it, though. It's starts very slowly, and most of the first 50-odd pages is Ben Holiday, hotshot lawyer, angsting over his life. He debates at length about buying the "magic kingdom" advertised in a catalog addressed to his dead wife, then after he decides to buy it he spends page after weary page worrying that he's made the right decision. The mood so far is rather dark. Then Ben finally makes it to his new kingdom of Landover, where he meets his wacky, wacky castle servants: the incompetent wizard, the court scribe whom the wizard has inadvertently changed into a dog and can't change back, and Parsnip and Bunion, two kobolds who hiss instead of talking. Bring on the arguments and the hi-jinx!

I hate that kind of humor. Fortunately, it doesn't overtake the story too frequently. What does overtake the story are endless descriptions and Ben's even more endless internal monologue--paragraph after paragraph of him wondering if he's making the right choices. Then we get more description. Sometimes we get huge long conversations about nothing much. I skimmed a lot.

It turns out that Landover has been kingless for twenty years, long enough for its magic to begin to fade. Demons have moved in to try and overtake the kingdom; a dragon is ravaging the land; and when Ben tries to unite the bickering communities, no one will acknowledge him as king. He and his little entourage (joined eventually by the wacky wacky g'home gnomes, short for 'go home, gnomes') travel all over the kingdom--with the accompanying pages-long descriptions of the countryside and weather that matches Our Hero's mood, because after all this is a kind of high fantasy--and try to convince the kingdom that it has a king again.

I know I'm infuriating some readers who read this book when they were young and love it beyond all reason. I have books like that, and I would be yelling at the computer screen if, say, I saw a review dumping on Brighty of the Grand Canyon--even though as an adult I can admit that it's not very well written. Magic Kingdom for Sale is not very well written. Its tone veers from jocular to 80s-slang-modern to stilted high-fantasy formality. Except for Ben, the characters are one-dimensional. And I don't even want to discuss Willow, the beautiful sylph who takes one look at Ben and declares that she belongs to him.

On the other hand, it's an interesting plot, and Ben's grief for his dead wife feels very real and makes him a much more compelling character than anyone else. But despite the wordiness, I felt a distinct lack of details in the story, as though Terry Brooks was describing events from a long way away instead of from up close. I don't know if that makes any sense, but I never felt connected with Landover, never felt a sense of closeness to the land--which is bad, considering that that's an important part of the book.

B&N link

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