Naked Empire is book eight of Terry Goodkind's bestselling "Sword of Truth" fantasy series, following on directly from the events of the previous instalment The Pillars of Creation.
Richard, one of various gifted children of this world's former dark lord Darken Rahl, continues his journeying with the Sword of Truth and his wife Kahlan. Seven volumes of magical and military upheaval, and all too many desperate last-ditch measures, have left their scars: "The world was unravelling, in more ways than one. But there had been no choice".
Ancient sorcerous barriers have been accidentally toppled, freeing the unpleasant "Imperial Order" to rape, loot and pillage the rest of the world. The Emperor and his chief minion are revolting creatures whose sadism begins where Vlad the Impaler left off. Bandakar, a land of pacifists, has little chance of survival until someone gets the bright idea of giving the admired liberator Lord Rahl--that is, Richard--a dose of slow-acting poison. There is no antidote until he, personally and more or less single-handedly, frees Bandakar from the invading horde while, as pacifists, the natives will stand clear and disapprove of the slaughter. Some lessons in ethics and realism need to be learned here...
Goodkind deals in tougher issues and greater moral complexities than the typical blockbuster fantasy series, and underlines the dreadfulness of his characters' choices with unsparing descriptions of Imperial atrocity. Big trouble is also spreading elsewhere, with the Rahl homeland under siege and the fabled Wizard's Keep--a bastion that is actually the home of just two elderly magicians--threatened by magic-immune infiltrators.
Meanwhile in Bandakar, Richard and friends have greater problems than overwhelming opposition and useless allies. His personal magic "gift" is failing, he gets terrible headaches, his relationship with the Sword of Truth is in trouble, poison symptoms worsen, and the three vials of antidote are hidden in widely separated places. Worse, the local boss of Imperial forces is a soul-stealer who rides the minds of birds and beasts, watches Richard's progress through their eyes, and can gloatingly anticipate his plans. No-one said this was going to be easy.
A violent finale sees some good surprises and ingenuity, plus one cheeky deus ex machina, bringing this adventure to a neat conclusion. The greater war continues, though, and further sequels must follow. Newcomers to "Sword of Truth" may be dizzied by the number of back-story references, but the saga's legions of admirers will welcome this slickly crafted and compulsively readable episode. --David Langford