The Runes of the Earth: A mostly welcome return

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fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Stephen R. Donaldson The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever The Runes of the Earth by Stephen R. Donaldson

Fans of Stephen R. Donaldson’s earlier work in the Land will find much to like here. Much of what was so good in the first two trilogies is here: conflicted characters; examinations of power and guilt, sense of loss, familiar etc. That’s both a positive and a negative, however, as there is a distinct sense of been there done that. Not overpowering, as the story does expand, deepen, and in general differ in slight, subtle ways from its predecessors. But the sense remains through much of the book, as once again the Land is under assault, once again characters are ignorant or unwilling, once again a character wrestles with use/control of power, once again a character is taken hostage, once again we deal with Stonedowners and Ranhyn and Bloodguard, once again Kevin Landwaster has lessons to tell us. Again, the book manages, I think, to evade this as a major pitfall, but one is willing to give a bit more slack to the first book in a projected trilogy/tetralogy; one hopes the rest of the books move down more original paths.

The opening is a bit slow, as Linden Avery’s life since the last book is summarized and she is set down the path toward reentry into the Land. Part of the slowness comes from too much unnecessary introspection on her part, unnecessary because it’s redundant (we’ve heard it already), repetitive (goes on too long in the same vein), or because it is telling us something we should probably be shown. A bit of it also seems somewhat contrived, but as its main purpose is to get her to the Land we can accept its arbitrariness.

Once in the Land the story picks up and becomes much more compelling as Avery learns of the Land’s new ills (loss of the Staff of Law, time storms, a ban on earthpower, and more) and picks up some allies and of course some enemies in her attempts to save the Land and her hostage son. As usual with Donaldson, half the fun is the shiftiness of what it means to be ally and/or enemy.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsFor longtime readers of Donaldson, there will be some moments of annoyance as he goes over past Land history that we’ve all read about or even better seen occur. Most times he goes a step further, filling in some backstory or forward-story, adding a few details, but it seems much of it could have been streamlined. I suppose that was for the benefit of those who haven’t read the previous books (a quite detailed prologue is available for them) but I’m not sure I understand why anyone would pick this book up not having read those others. Not only do characters, themes, and plots repeat or expand upon those from earlier, but the whole thrust of the series revolves around the love of the Land and unfortunately, in this book, the Land is pretty pallid. One just can’t understand why it’s so important that Avery save it unless one has seen it in all its first trilogy glory. Sure, Avery keeps telling the reader why it’s important and tries to recall the past glory (though she never really saw it fully herself), but that’s a very poor substitute. For that reason alone I’d never recommend this book as a starter (plus, reading the first six cuts down on the wait time for the sequel to The Runes of the Earth).

Flaws in the book are relatively minor. Sometimes it’s a bit contrived, sometimes a bit rushed, sometimes too familiarly predictable. As mentioned the Land itself no longer glows, and “Kevin’s Dirt” is just an awful letdown in terms of sheer language; I mean, this is the same guy who gave us the Ill Earth War, The Ritual of Desecration, the Unfettered, the Unhomed, and Lord Mhoram’s Victory. Is “Kevin’s Dirt” really the best he could do? But this, like the other flaws, are insignificant in the book’s hold on the reader and if one hopes to see some more expansive character and thematic lines, the first two trilogies bode well for such expansion, making The Runes of the Earth both a welcome return and a hopeful beginning.


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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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One comment

  1. Gerrungefuttock Burblescrote /

    I have just started Fatal Revenant and boy what a struggle.
    I started the Covenant series many years ago but have reached
    an age where my patience has run out. I’ve never come across
    so many gobbledigook words used by an author before, it borders on the pretentious. I certainly never required a dictionary to hand when reading Tolkien as a 10 year old! I have however decided to continue but substitute the nonsense words with made up words of my own, the effect is truly hurgleguam and much more kerambable to read that I now laugh my gurnalls off! I’ve turned it into a comic.

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