Terry Brooks’ Magic Kingdom for Sale: Sold begins with an intriguing premise: a depressed lawyer from Chicago sees an ad for a magic kingdom in an upscale Christmas catalogue and decides he has little to lose. The scenario isn’t super-original (A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court comes to mind), but at least it is more promising than the straight sword-and-sorcery crap that usually turns up on the BGL, so I decided that I too had little to lose.
Here’s a typical example of what I got. Our hero, Ben, has reached the end of what we are told is a scary quest to find the witch Nightshade (he encounters illusory brambles and lizards…really, I’d be more scared of being a lawyer in Chicago, but your mileage may vary).
She was not what Ben had expected; she didn’t really look much like a witch at all, though it never crossed his mind for an instant that she wasn’t. She was tall and sharp-featured, her skin white and flawless, her hair raven-black except for a single streak of white that ran down its center.
Excuse me, but how is that not a boilerplate central-casting witch? This could be a missing-persons report on Morticia Addams. And the tedious clichés extend to her character—she’s a standard wicked witch from the good old days before wicca and feminism. But what gets me here is the chutzpah of announcing that we are about to get something original and surprising while actually delivering nothing. It just makes things worse, in the same way that an Olive Garden menu boasting about their Tuscan test kitchens takes what would otherwise be acceptable truck-stop or hospital-cafeteria cuisine and transforms it into an insult to real food.
It will not surprise you, at this point, to learn that the two other female characters in the book are the lovely sylph Willow, whose first words are something like “Hey, I’ve been waiting naked in this pool so I can screw the first guy who sees me, so let’s hook up!” and a living house, which provides nourishment, warmth, and a nice bath. Jeez, Mr. Brooks, I’m your reader, not your therapist.
Probably the most surprising (not appealing, but surprising) feature of the book is Brooks’ phobia about plants. I already mentioned the scary fake shrubbery (shrubbery can be scary, as readers of The Shining know, but it has to move); Ben is also deeply scarred and grossed out when he finds out that Willow occasionally turns into a tree for a while. I can understand being a bit alarmed for a moment, though this is a magic kingdom and she is kinda greenish anyway, but is there anything less creepy your girlfriend could turn into than a willow tree? Can this compare with, say, finding out your girlfriend goes to Ron Paul rallies?
Apart from the freaky plant thing, the whole book is pretty generic; you would be amazed how little fresh perspective a modern interloper can bring to a fantasy world. Ben even adapts to the pseudo-medieval social hierarchy—when he finally triumphs, he ignores the few peasants who believed in him from the beginning, and invtes back to his womb-like animate castle only the upper-class pricks who had snubbed him. He does give them a little lecture about the necessity for free-trade agreements, apparently hoping to turn Camelot into Brussels, but it just makes the whole thing more dreary.
So go read Connecticut Yankee. Or for a more modern encounter of worlds, try Paul Park’s White Tyger series, starting with A Princess of Roumania. Park is frustrating at times, but his steam-punk alternate “Rounamia” is unquestionably his own universe.