The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: Highly recommended

book review Stephen R. Donaldson The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT by Stephen R. Donaldson

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsStephen R. Donaldson’s Land (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever) series is one of the earliest reactions against the carbon-copy Tolkien-like works that proliferated soon after the success of The Lord of the Rings and stands in start contrast to another book published the same year — Sword of Shannara —which simply rewrites Tolkien rather than responds to it.

The first series is known as the Chronicles of Thomas the Unbeliever (more on that later), after the main character appearing in the opening trilogy. Covenant reappears in the second trilogy, but shares the spotlight with Linden Avery throughout, even to the point of being overshadowed by her at times. Avery remains a main character in Donaldson’s recent new trilogy, begun with The Runes of the Earth.

Anyone familiar with fantasy will recognize the genre’s typical elements: small bands gathering together to undertake urgent quests, a dark lord trying to dominate the world, horse-loving peoples, elves, etc. Donaldson doesn’t simply round up the usual suspects, however, and then let them play out in all the predictable fashions.

For the most part, Donaldson breathes some fresh air into the old stalwarts (though they weren’t really all that old in terms of modern fantasy when he began the series and the fact that they still feel somewhat fresh today is a testament to his creativity). The races aren’t simply the same-old, same-old elves, dwarves, and so on. His giants especially are a wondrous creation, both as a species and in their individual form. The Land itself is a marvel of description and truly feels as alive as it is meant to (making it all the more heartbreaking when that life is threatened); it is not the same dreary trudge through funny-named mountain ranges, grassy plains, etc. There are some standby plot points — the small band infiltrating the dark lord’s lair, the siege by an overwhelming army of bad guys — but these are more than balanced by the plot’s overall originality as well as by its individual scenes. His characters too, avoid falling into the realm of dull fantasy types. They are complex creations, often flawed, often frustrating, and sometimes detestable. Many grow throughout a single book and/or across the series (singular and plural), rather than appearing onstage fully formed and immune to experience.

But what sets the series most apart is not its simple quality but that aspect of Covenant’s name that lends itself to the title: Unbeliever. Covenant is that rare hero who not only doesn’t want to be a hero (after all, how many of those reluctant would-rather-stay-in-their-protected-hamlet-heroes have we seen), but who willingly chooses not to be. Even stranger are his reasons — he chooses not to be a hero not out of fear or modesty but because he doesn’t believe in Donaldson’s world creation. A leper (literally, not metaphorically) in the real world he is transported from, Covenant refuses to believe that the Land is anything but a fever dream.

Donaldson’s choice of leprosy as his main character’s disease is brilliant, as lepers simply can’t afford a fantasy life, can’t afford a daydream or a distracted moment because the smallest bump, scratch, or cut when they aren’t paying attention (they can’t feel the warning pain) can end up in loss of limb and life. Donaldson goes further than simply having Covenant be reluctant, even further than having him disbelieve the whole thing (and not simply for a few pages of tension — he is the Unbeliever throughout almost the whole work). He risks turning the reader totally against his character at a very early stage when he has Covenant commit a truly horrendous act that will reverberate throughout the whole series of books.

The act itself, the way it echoes down the years and the millennia (time moves differently in the Land), Covenant’s inner struggles, the pondering of life and death, of existence and being, puts the series in the “serious” fantasy category. That doesn’t mean the story itself isn’t exciting or compelling. The books are filled with great battle scenes, tense quests, acts of wildly exhilarating desperation, high magic, stirring speeches, personal bravery (I defy anyone not to get chills when Mhoram comes into his own) as well as moments of pain and suffering, heartbreaking sacrifices, and realizations of futility that threaten to crush the spirit of the reader as much as the characters.

But with his choice of Covenant as the main character and his exploration of free will and responsibility, Donaldson raises the importance of all of these elements of entertainment. Something he does as well, though slightly less satisfactorily with Avery in the second series. While this is overall a positive aspect of the series, it can at times be somewhat detrimental, during those moments Donaldson seems too hyper-aware of writing “seriously”. Sometimes the waxing philosophical is a bit too much; sometimes his diction is over-the-top in its use of obscure words. But while these moments exist (perhaps even worsen over the life of the series), they aren’t much more than minor annoyances.

You won’t fall in love with Thomas Covenant. In fact, though I find he grows on you, you may never even like him. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find his story compelling. And you will, I believe, fall in love with the Land and many of its denizens. If you find it difficult to get through the opening of book one, Lord Foul’s Bane, try to keep going, even if it means skimming a bit (something I don’t normally advise). More importantly, even if you don’t like book one, give book two a shot for at least awhile. You’ll find more characters to balance Covenant’s despair and angst (not to mention his whining). Highly recommended.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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