Spoilers have been written in white text which can be read by highlighting the relevant passage.
Magic Kingdom for Sale – SOLD! tells the story of lawyer Ben Holiday who decides to buy a magic kingdom. Coming into this book, going from the title and premise alone, I expected a very silly journey ahead of me, or at least a humorous one in the style of Terry Pratchett or Douglas Adams (both of whom I adore). However, I was actually greeted with a surprisingly serious tale containing relatable characters, well-done world building and realistic politics, albeit in a fantasy setting.
The main character Ben Holiday is incredibly realistic and likeable, overcome by grief from the death of his wife, disillusioned in his profession as a lawyer, and retreating into himself more and more. Before he makes his journey into the kingdom of Landover, Ben only has one friend left and is at a very low point in his life. In this way, the whole book, as a part of the trope of the Hero’s Journey, is very much about his personal development, not just in learning how to become the king he needs to be, but simultaneously learning how to break himself away from the fear and sadness that has dominated his life for the past few years since the death of his wife.
This hero’s journey also ends up in fairly generic terms with morals we are all meant to take away with us and learn from:
“I need only believe. I need only remain true. I need only continue to work for it.”
Despite this cheesy message delivered right at the end, it is not a particularly saccharine book for the most part, which is a point in its favour.
I am also a real sucker for the oft-used (some might say overused in fantasy) idea of a character who is ‘special’ or a chosen one or the prophesied saviour or the like, perhaps through some futile desire to pretend that something in this world matters in an objective sense, although my cynicism protests otherwise (it may be that this is one of the reasons I love fantasy so much; I can suspend some of my cynicism as I suspend my disbelief. Although it’s good in doses, too much cynicism can be bad for an inherently contradictorily sentimental person such as myself). I loved all of the hints throughout that Ben was different to the other ‘play-kings’ who had been sold the kingdom of Landover and that he could be the one to reunite the land and its people as well as the way in which he becomes what everyone hopes.
Another thing I’m a sucker for is a male character who can cry and doesn’t feel his masculinity in any way threatened. Ben is so human to me, so much like how I think I would react in the same situations (though he is much more capable than I would be), while all of the other characters (such as the Kobolds, Willow, Abernathy, the G’home Gnomes and Questor) were also very likeable and believable with realistic relationships, while a potential deus ex machina was expertly avoided by court wizard Questor being totally incompetent.
Something else I love in fiction is when the climax of a story is solved through an internal realisation or thought process of a character (the example of Terry Pratchett’s A Hat Full of Sky springs to mind), especially when it involves the overcoming of a personal issue or flaw the character has. This happened twice in Magic Kingdom in very satisfying ways.
Now onto the flaws of the book.
Unfortunately, the female characters in this book were not the best. The only two who actually exist both end up ‘belonging’ to the main (male) character in one way or another, which is not the most feminist thing ever to occur in a work of fiction. One of the first things Willow ever says to Ben, immediately after they meet, is “I belong to you now”. Call me a radical, but that’s not the best way for the first female character introduced in the book (and only one of real significance) to start off. The only thing I can say in favour of this is that Ben does protest, telling her that she belongs to herself and not to him. If her declaration were to any other main character, I would have said it were a disgusting male power fantasy, but Ben is such a gentleman and does not take advantage of her at all, being totally bemused by the whole experience and by her belief in love at first sight. Despite her proclamations of belonging to a man she’s just met, Willow is still a pretty likeable character, though it’s uncertain how much substance she really has beyond being ethereal, loving Ben and occasionally being fair(l)y useful. *SPOILERS* In addition to this, her near-death after the rescue from Abaddon also further turns her into a mere damsel in distress, singling her out from all of the others Ben rescued (four male characters) to be the most dependent on him in a way that was totally unnecessary (see below). *END SPOILERS*
The only other female character in the entire novel is the witch Nightshade. I did love her to start with. She was the most powerful person in the land, prickly and happy to live alone (though, thinking back, those are all traits for which women have been vilified in the past or present; having power, being unfriendly, not being interested in marriage or chaperonage). *SPOILERS* Unfortunately she is ultimately defeated by all of her agency being taken away from her by the magical Io Dust so that she is ordered to fly towards her own destruction, furthering the sexist ideas found in the novel, since female characters throughout history have had little or no autonomy, only doing things at the behest of a man. *END SPOILERS*
I do believe that one sometimes has to view a work as a product of its era, and this was written by a man in the ‘80s. Despite this, rampant sexism, homophobia or another abounding prejudice or unsavoury attitude can ruin a work of fiction for me. However, this book – although it does contain some rather outdated ways of writing women – is still enjoyable for me. I can view its issues with certain types of unconscious sexism as something problematic while at the same time enjoy the book very much, so, although I think it’s important to note such things, I would still recommend this book and this writer.
Another the problem I found with this book was that there were far too many climaxes in a row, each with the ‘this is the most important part of the novel!’ feel, making the last few chapters rather exhausting. Because of this, the pacing generally felt a bit off towards the end, so that it seemed a little rushed. Rather than having more time in between the different climaxes (since this would make the book overlong), at least one could have been cut completely – *SPOILERS* such as Willow’s near-death, which felt completely forced and totally unnecessary. I assume it was to give Ben some emotional turmoil and make him realise how important she was to him, but that could have been done purely through her rescue from Abaddon *SPOILERS END* – or possibly the order of things changed around.
Despite these problems, this was a very good book that far exceeded the expectations I went in with. The characters were lively, loveable and realistic with brilliant development; the world was interesting and well-built; and the threats felt very real and were overcome in clever and gratifying ways. I’m not sure if I’ll read the sequels, but I nevertheless liked this book a lot and would definitely recommend it. For those of you who are like me and feel daunted by seeing that a book is part of a series, this novel works perfectly as a stand-alone, so you don’t have to worry about having to get the next book just to see a few loose ends tied up. I may well be returning to Terry Brooks at some point, perhaps to read the other Landover novels, since he has impressed me in quite a few ways during this book and my thoughts on him as a writer are overwhelmingly positive.