Sunday, December 16, 2007

Fatal Revenant, Stephen R. Donaldson

Fatal Revenant
Stephen R. Donaldson

It was on March 15, 2005 that I reviewed The Runes of the Earth by Stephen R. Donaldson. That was the first book in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. I've now read Fatal Revenant, the second in the series, and I loved it.

I will start with the one and only complaint I have: Donaldson writes like he swallowed a thesaurus. (My wife actually said that. I'm using her words without permission. She can hit me with a lawsuit if she chooses.) In Fatal Revenant, his tendency to use unusual words comes to the fore, and he may be overdoing it in the eyes of some. In my case, it irritated me only slightly - I found most of the words interesting in and of themselves - and it was easy to ignore in light of all the good things going on here.

There is one other issue, but it's not related to the book itself. It's the fact that it's been over two years between the release of the previous book and this one. And the same size gap will exist before the release of the third book, as well as between the third and the last book in the series. Gaps that long don't work for me. I tend to lose the details of what happened in the previous book. In this case, I started Fatal Revenant and put it down within a few pages because it was obvious I needed to remember more from the first book. But life intervened and I found I'd picked it back up before rereading The Runes of the Earth. This time I kept on reading. I'm glad I did, but I'll need to go back and reread the entire series again, probably several times.

My review of The Runes of the Earth wasn't exactly full of details. It was the first review I wrote for Doug's 25 in 05 forum, and I hadn't yet figured out how I wanted to write reviews. As a result, there is a lot to tell here.

NOTE: if you've never read any of the Thomas Covenant novels, you should probably stop reading now unless you're sure you won't. I'm going to summarize the first six volumes - which amounts to spoiling them at a very high level - and then review the seventh and eight volumes while attempting to spoil nothing. Donaldson summarizes this history as well at the start of each book - and he's far better at such things than I am - but I'll do my best.

The first series - The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant - introduce us to our anti-hero: a writer living in the US in our times, with his wife and young son. He is diagnosed with leprosy, however, and everything changes. Two fingers on one hand are amputated to stop an infection, his wife leaves him to protect her son from exposure to the disease, and he is shunned by the town in which he lives. The actual disease can be controlled but not cured, and the nerve damage requires Covenant to develop certain harsh survival skills, like regularly examining his body for injuries he cannot feel. In addition, he grows embittered and frustrated. He gives up writing thinking that all his work is superficial garbage.

In this mental condition he experiences what may be hallucinations of time spent in a place called The Land. It's a fantasy world where magic is real, where nearly everyone has an ability to see health directly, where there exist numerous unusual races of people and creatures, and where an evil power - Lord Foul, the Despiser - is trying to release himself from the prison of time. In The Land, Covenant's white gold wedding ring - which he still wears, despite his divorce - is a token of great power, and there are similarities between him and one of great heroes of The Land's past.

We spend three volumes with Covenant in The Land. Despite his unbelief, hot temper, and vile actions (early on, nearly mad with disbelief in events, he rapes a young girl; that act has terrible repercussions throughout the rest of the books) the people of The Land trust him and his white gold ring to protect them from Lord Foul. But Covenant doesn't accept that role willingly, and struggles mightily before he finally achieves the desired end and returns home, seemingly permanently.

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant take place ten years later in our time. Covenant's wife has returned to him, but she's insane. A local doctor - Linden Avery - attempts to assist Covenant but winds up summoned to The Land with him. Linden has her own difficult background that makes her particularly vulnerable to what has happened there.

It's been about 3,500 years in The Land since Covenant left and things have changed radically. Lord Foul is back but he's working in less direct ways this time. The Land is now dominated by something called the Sunbane, and only Linden has health sense, so she can see exactly what the Sunbane does to everything it touches. In a long quest - encompassing three more volumes - Covenant and Linden attempt to replace the staff of law, which was destroyed 3,500 years before, and which is needed in the fight against the Despiser. In the end, Covenant again confronts Lord Foul, but he's been transformed in a particular way, and that transformation is key. Once again he triumphs over despite, and Linden uses the new staff to repair much of the damage done to The Land.

But Covenant died in the real world and cannot go back. He remains in The Land - as part of the Arch of Time - while Linden returns and rightly claims his white gold ring as her own.

The Runes of the Earth takes place another ten years later in our world. Linden has adopted an autistic son and she's now in charge of a medical facility that is treating - among others - Covenant's ex-wife. Roger, Covenant's son, appears, wanting to remove his mother from the hospital. A confrontation ensues, and Linden once again finds herself in The Land. She learns that her son and Roger are also in there, and specifically that Lord Foul holds her son captive.

Once again things have changed radically in The Land. Something called Kevin's Dirt - a reference to a past high lord who failed to defeat Lord Foul - prevents The Land's native inhabitants from having health sense. A new danger has appeared in The Land: caesures, time storms destroying everything they encounter. And of course Lord Foul is still present and working for his release. Gathering a small group of friends around her, Linden sets out on a quest for the staff of law, which was lost sometime after she and Covenant saw it remade all those years before. The Runes of the Earth tells the story of that quest.

At last we come to Fatal Revenant. In it, Linden encounters Thomas Covenant and her son - Jeremiah - unexpectedly, but they are changed from those she knew. Covenant is brusque where before he'd been tender, her son can talk and understands his surroundings, and neither will let her touch them. Covenant says he has a plan for defeating Lord Foul, but he cannot make it happen alone. He needs Linden's help. She accompanies him on...

And I have to stop there. To say more would be to give it away. Except I will add that the ending of Fatal Revenant was (to me) astounding. Without a doubt I'll read the next book in the series, even if it's three more years before it's in my hands.

In my opinion - and I know I differ from Ed in this regard - there are two truly important fantasy settings: Middle Earth and The Land. Nothing else I've read compares. Tolkien set the standard, practically defining the genre. I don't think he was always successful - particularly with anything published after LOTR - but he basically created the modern fantasy epic, basing it on many classical and ancient ideas, of course.

Donaldson takes fantasy to the next level. Tolkien tells a physical story - about actions and trials. Donaldson tells both that and a mental story. His characters suffer and undergo emotional change in a way that Tolkien's don't. Covenant never stops paying for the rape that he commits - it echoes down through history after him - but he also grows and becomes something much greater than the the man who first enters The Land. Nearly all of Donaldson's work is about that sort of mental transformation, and many of his characters are both despicable and heroic. That sort of conflict - internal struggles between good and bad, right and wrong, belief and unbelief - is Donaldson's forte.

I strongly recommend Donaldson's works, and particularly all eight volumes of the Thomas Covenant series. In them I think you'll find a kind of hope, that maybe we can transcend our self imposed limits in some way. For me this isn't a mystical or religious thought. It's the idea that we can all become something better if we try. We may face strong adversaries, but the struggle is worthwhile, and we can triumph in the end.