Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold. A review

If you like a big, heaping helping of vanilla with your fantasy, you'll probably like the flavor of Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold.

Me, I'm a New York Super Fudge Chunk guy and I thought Magic Kingdom tasted like shit.

Yeah, that's harsh. If you don't have anything nice to say, don't say anything at all, etc. etc. But I have an obligation to review Brooks' work for two reasons: I owe it to http://www.sffaudio.com/, and I figure I might steer away a couple potential readers who might stumble with tragic results into the banal minefield that is Magic Kingdom.

To be fair, Brooks can write, in terms of stringing gramatically correct sentences together. I've read much, much worse stuff than Magic Kingdom. I also have fond memories of Brooks' Sword of Shannara series, which I read as a teenager and liked (although I knew even then that they were derivative of Tolkien). But I'm afraid to revisit Shannara these days, especially after Magic Kingdom. I just know its not going to hold up.

Magic Kingdom is about the tale of Ben Holiday, a 40-year-old lawyer burned out with his profession and his life, having lost his wife to a car accident and finding no satisfaction in his work. While thumbing through a specialty catalog he finds a literal magic kingdom for sale for a million bucks and decides to make the purchase. The broker, a wizard, whisks Holiday away to the fantastic realm of Landover, a once shining kingdom now in serious decline. The land is failing and the great castle of Sterling Silver is tarnished because Landover has been without a king for 20 years.

Holiday soon finds out that he's not the first king to try to ascend to the throne in that time, however. Far from it. Instead, he's been duped by the broker, and learns that dozens of previous kings have failed before him, and were meant to. Landover's peoples are bitter and disenchanted with the string of would-be kings turned failures, and Holiday has a fight on his hands to win their pledges.

But Holiday has help in the form of a doddering old wizard (Questor), a talking dog who once served as a court scribe (Abernathy), a beautiful shape shifting sylph named Willow, a pair of Kobolds, and a pair of hairy, grubby, earth-tunneling gnomes.

The biggest problem I had with Magic Kingdom is that this is kids' stuff, but it's not labeled nor probably intended as such. I don't buy that Magic Kingdom is written for an adolescent audience: its clearly marked as "adult fiction" on the cover of the audiobook I've reviewed. Nor is its subject matter for adolescents: At it's heart it's about a man's middle-age crisis, hardly the stuff to captivate a young audience. And because Magic Kingdom doesn't know what it wants to be, it suffers mightly. I enjoy good adolescent fantasy lit--C.S. Lewis' The Chronicles of Narnia and Nancy Farmer's The Sea of Trolls, for example, are terrific reads for folks of any age--but Magic Kingdom failed to satisfy my grown-up tastes, or my childhood love for good, simple stories.

Secondly, Landover as a world is completely unrealistic and devoid of any personality or charm. With generic place names like "The Greensward," "the Deep Fell," "The Wasteland," and "The Mountains of Melkor," Landover may as well be anywhere fantasy USA. And the way Brooks describes Landover you'd think it was the size of a postage stamp--two sentences of description here and there and Holiday and his crew have traversed the whole continent without breaking a sweat.

Thirdly, I didn't much like the main character. There's nothing to dislike about Holiday, but there's not much to like, either. He's bland and featureless. Holiday stumbles around most of the story, avoiding scapes by luck or occasionally pluck and wit, but mostly because he's "fated" to become king. He's revealed as the chosen one almost from the outset of the story, so there's really no tension or doubt that he will ascend to the throne of Landover. I also found his companions extremely annoying. The kobolds, gnomes, and even Abernathy and Questor resemble a troupe of circus clowns who are there to provide levity, a sounding board for Holiday's questions, and occasionally bail him out of trouble, but do little else.

Fourthly, the underpinnings of the story have some serious flaws and holes. We find out that the evil wizard who "sells" Landover to Holiday is doing it for the money. Keep in mind that this is a wizard who has powerful magic at his disposal--and can use it freely on Earth--but can't seem to figure out how to use it to make a few honest bucks. Lame. Brooks draws some extremely tenuous connections between the health of the king and the health of the land, an old Arthurian trope that is not at all developed in Magic Kingdom. Other than a few brief mentions of blighted crops, swirling mists and gloom, and some unhappy farmers, there's no overt suffering, darkness, or disease, nor any explanations about why a king is needed to restore the land's health. In short, I had no emotional investment in whether Holiday succeeded or failed in his mission because I didn't find myself caring about him or the plight of Landover. By the conclusion of the story I was simply glad to see it end.

I could go on and on with the criticisms (the evil wizard allowed Holiday, a brilliant lawyer and a golden gloves boxer, to buy Landover because he thought Holiday was a good candidate to fail at becoming king?) but it's like shooting ducks in a barrel. I do think there is an audience for Magic Kingdom, and you could do worse if you're looking for a brainless beach read, but suffice to say that it's not for readers like me.

Edit: This review also appears on SFFaudio.com: http://www.sffaudio.com/?p=2908


Max said...

Welcome back. Do I sense the bitterness of a man who spent his vacation reading a book he hated? Sometimes it's tricky to pack to right reading material, or so I find.

Amusingly, I didn't realize that I had read this book till midway through your fifth paragraph, and the rest of the details you described barely tickle my memory. "I remember reading that," is all that I can say about it though; I can't even muster the faintest praise to bother damning it.

Falze said...

This simply is not adult fiction and should not be marketed as such. It is 2 dimensional pap with an animated suit of armor or something, if I recall correctly. And, no, it's not even good adolescent fantasy. Compared to Harry Potter, The Dark Is Rising, etc. this is a waste of paper and ink - even though I read it young I still thought it stunk - and agree that it felt like the whole 'world' was about the size of my neighborhood, if that.

That said - go back to Shannara. It's still good. And, like McKeirnan, what started out for an aspiring writer as a Tolkien-derived grasping at fantasy has become an independent, developed world with interesting characters (actually, what Brooks has wrought is better than McKiernan's world). True, things got hairy for a while - Sword was good, Elfstones was pretty good with a neat, massive (yes, Minas Tirith-like) battle at the end, Wishsong made me think, "Well, that's the end of Brooks. Boy did THAT suck!" Some time passed and then he started putting out some actual decent books set in this world at different times. It's not super awesome can't-put-it-down, but I like what he's putting out now and they don't feel derivative - no more so than anyone else after the masterpiece has already been written by someone else. Give it a shot. You don't need to reread the original 3 to read the newer books, either. There's nothing disgraceful about authors writing adult and juvenile fiction - Piers Anthony and Robert Heinlein spring immediately to mind. Unfortunately, especially with Heinlein, they don't market the juvenile stuff AS juvenile, either, which is an insult to the reader and the writer.

If only you'd asked before listening to this book - I'd've told you it was written for someone 1/3 our age ;D

Brian Murphy said...


Thanks for the welcome back, and yes, you pretty much nailed it. I finished this on my week off and wished that I had read something else. Ah well...


Yes, this appears to be a bad case of mis-marketing, although as I said I'm not even sure that Brooks intended Magic Kingdom as adolescent fiction--it is, after all, about middle-age crisis (to a degree) and tells the story of a 40-year-old lawyer trying to find meaning in his life. Except it doesn't accomplish that goal, either.

Don't worry, I still have the Shannara books on my shelves. I'm not throwing them out and I may try to read them again someday. But Magic Kingdom certainly left a sour taste in my mouth.

Anonymous said...

So I guess you won't be reading the sequels to Magic Kingdom then? ;P

I always found the main character of this book to be way too childish at times to be a man in his 40's. And the little green fairy girl, whatever the hell she was, ugh... don't get me started on her. So annoying.

- Matthew

Anonymous said...

I needed something to divert me on a five and a half hour drive, so I purchased this book as a bargain-bin audiobook.

I didn't dislike it as much as all of you seem to have done. Maybe the audio format of the story and the fact that I expected very little helped.

I've read the Sword of Shannara trilogy, Scions of Shannara, Genesis of Shannara - to me this book seemed like Brooks' most original work since the original Sword of Shannara piece. Shannara pigeon-holed Terry Brooks like Frank Hebert and Dune; this is a nice change.

By the way - speaking of the "Arthurian trope," you may not have realized that - just as SoS was a foil to Lord of the Rings - this book was clearly designed after Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court by Mark Twain. Maybe that will give you a little bit of grace for the innocent little tome.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Lewis, thanks for stopping by.

I'm glad you liked Magic Kingdom, but I'm afraid that I just don't have much good to say about it. I didn't find it offensive, but it didn't engage me at all, and I didn't find Ben Holiday very likeable. If you liked the setup of a modern character entering a fantasy world, I'd recommend Poul Anderson's Three Hearts and Three Lions, which did this far better, in my opinion.

I read A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court once, about 15 years go, for college, and I don't remember it too well so it's likely I missed the reference there.

pipple mongole said...

Your review made me feel less alone in the world, Brain.
Being not a big fantasy fan, but a fan of good books, I picked this up recently to finally give it a go. Seen it on many friends' shelves, heard it was being made into a film more than a few times so I figured it was one of the good ones.
I haven't gotten more than 50 pages into this and I started to question my own idea what a good story was.
I had just finished 3 great novels -fast- in a row over a holiday, an Elmore Leonard, a Zane Grey and a James Morrow and was pretty excited to get into this one and now I feel really cheated.
I would hate to offend anyone out there who loves this book- I know certain writing styles speak to different people but...
It was like it was written by my when I was just out of high school- I agree he knows how to string a sentence together, he goes through the motions of the proper length of a paragraph and he has characters and they say things but he spends so much time awkwardly describing their inner thoughts instead of showing us who they are that I can only get through a few pages at a time.
Should I go on?
I will feel like I gave up but there are so many great great, well-written novels out there I would hate to waste this time reading a book that is sub-par.
What do you think?


Brian Murphy said...

Hi James, stop now and save yourself the agony. It really is an awful book. There's so much more in the wide world to read than Magic Kingdom for Sale.

I hadn't heard that it's being made into a movie but man, if true, that's scraping some serious muck from the bottom of the proverbial barrel.

Gary Bacon said...

why is it so bad that they are making a movie about it? i personally thought that the book was a good read, not some "muck from the bottom of the proverbial barrel".

pipple mongole said...

It really is a badly written book but... It would make a great movie. And let's face it, movies don't necessarily need to follow the exact storyline. Plus, A movie has its own language.
The problem I found with this book wasn't the story, per se, it was the actually writing. It was how bad the writer wrote a sentence and formed a visual. It reminded me of the stories I wrote in Grade 11 when I thought I knew I could write. Self indulgent. Clumsy.
This reminds me of another book that I disliked. The Forests of the Heart by Charles de Lint. Horribly written novel. Just ugly... but damn I wish they made it in to a movie. I would just feel bad for those people that would like the film who went to find the original story and had to trudge through bad prose.
Anyway- that's my two cents.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Gary, there are obviously many folks who enjoy the book, and that's okay. Art is subjective. I know many people who despise The Lord of the Rings, and I happen to disagree strongly, but I realize that not everyone likes the same things as me.

I found Magic Kingdom For Sale: Sold absolutely dreadful, for all the reasons described above. You like it. And there's not much more to say than that (unless you care to elaborate why you like it).

As Pipple said it might make for a good movie though, who knows?