Wed
Oct 23 2013 5:00pm
Then We Came to the End: The Last Dark, by Stephen R. Donaldson

The Last Dark Chronicles of Tomas Covenant Stephen R DonaldsonIn 1977, Stephen R. Donaldson began The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant with the release of his novel Lord Foul’s Bane —about dyspeptic leper Thomas Covenant and the wild magic held within his white gold wedding band—and now Donaldson is wrapping it up, nine books later, with The Last Dark.

An epic denouement thirty-six years in the making, The Last Dark purports to be a rich, satisfying finale for Stephen R. Donaldson’s signature character.

But really, I’m not going to talk much about how you’d find the end of this series. I’d like to talk about why you might start.

The Last Dark can only be read as the payoff to an investment. If you’ve put in the overtime reading the first nine books, you’ll almost certainly want to read this one, and will find rewards waiting for you when you do. If you have not read what came before, well, don’t blame me when you pick this up and you don’t know what haruchai are, or what “Kevin’s Dirt” is, and why it’s super bad. This may be why there seems to be relatively little fanfare surrounding this book. The people likely to read it already know that they’re going to, and the people who aren’t, won’t. It’s like the old joke about why companies that make adult diapers don’t spend much money on advertising—if people need them, they’ll find them.

Not a lot of people I know have read the series, which is a shame because I think it has a singular power and voice that make it unlike anything else I’ve ever read. It was one of my favorites as a teenager, but while the grown-up me recognizes the series’ gross elements of self-pity, and its deeply problematic nature, I still think it’s a riveting, unique tale worth reading, and deserves a higher place in our common fantasy canon.

It’s possible there might be some spoilers in the following paragraphs.

The series concerns Thomas Covenant, a successful writer in the real world who is abandoned by his wife and child after he contracts leprosy and becomes a figure of Shirley Jackson-like ostracism in his provincial small town. He can’t write, he can’t depend on anyone for support, and he can’t even—this one’s important pretty soon—get an erection. Time passes. Covenant lives a miserable, isolated existence, and survives his affliction by constantly checking and re-checking his body and extremities for the small, infection-prone wounds he cannot feel because of his leprosy. His life literally depends on obsessively protecting himself from harm.

Subtlety of metaphor is not Donaldson’s strong suit.

Covenant is hit on the head and awakens in what seems to be an almost stereotypical fantasy realm called “The Land.” He encounters a figure of Sauron-flavored malice named Lord Foul who prophesizes his destruction of the Land; he’s told his white gold wedding ring is a magical artifact of unimaginable power; he meets a village girl named Lena who mistakes him for an ancient culture hero and savior. And he is, miraculously, healed of his leprosy. Covenant refuses to believe any of it is real.

What happens next will probably determine whether you continue reading the book or attempt to kick a field goal with it. There’s no way to sugar coat this and please stop reading if you want to live spoiler free. Thomas Covenant discovers that along with his leprosy being cured, so has his leper-flaccid penis. Enraged at how the world has wronged him, and insisting that the Land is a dream or hallucination anyway, and therefore his actions have no moral significance, Covenant rapes Lena. As with the Flashman series, you are expected to continue sympathizing with the main character, but there is no denying or mitigating it: Thomas Covenant is a rapist.

And here is where Covenant’s journey really begins, with that shameful, evil act. He thereafter spends the largest part of the narrative refusing to believe in the reality of the Land, while the secondary characters, who love their home and don’t want it to be annihilated, drag Covenant along on their quests, like a moody, self-absorbed Frodo dripping with guilt and self-loathing who just wants to sit in a dark corner and listen to melodramatic music on his headphones. The wild magic in his ring, you see, could save the Land or destroy it. Over time Covenant learns to accept the Land, whether or not it’s actually real, and to love it as his new companions love it, and to stop being such a pill all the time, and, ultimately, to sacrifice himself for this magical place.

The series isn’t “Weird Fiction”-weird, but it is genuinely odd-weird in a way that stands apart from most fantasy. The Land’s mythologies and jargons, building blocks of any fantasy series worth its salt, hang together in a way that seems at once overfamiliar and deeply alien. Donaldson is no meticulous world-builder, but the setting of the Land possesses a palpable emotional character and presence, even if ecologically it’s a bit of a hash. So many things in the series seem like they shouldn’t work, but they are so powerfully infused with Donaldson’s intensity and extravagant depth of feeling that you don’t dare take them with anything less than utter seriousness. Donaldson is a grandiose, operatic writer—indeed the Covenant books and Donaldson’s (possibly superior) Gap Cycle seem at times to almost be adaptations of Wagner’s Ring of the Nibeling —and his thunderous voice puts the electricity and fire of real life into everyone and everything you encounter in the Covenant books.

That’s not to say he’s a writer without flaw, and now is when it’s finally time to talk about The Last Dark specifically. Donaldson has a tendency toward over-writing, and is a natural bombast who could benefit from more pitiless editing. In the last four books of the series, his worst tendencies seem to have been given free rein. Fatal Revenant, the eighth book, is at 900 pages nearly as long as the first two books in the series put together. The Last Dark could stand to be half as long as it actually is. It is a flabby work, distended with even more navel-gazing and garment-rending than is usual for him. And Donaldson’s penchant for needlessly archaic vocabulary is in full effect. He doesn’t just break George Orwell’s second rule of writing (“Never use a long word where a short one will do”), he destroys it with a condign maleficence.

But even in a work inflated by his worst tendencies, Donaldson builds toward a staggering resolution of love, endurance, and self-sacrifice that only he could have written. Donaldson is unquestionably a master of cinematic action and the steady build to an explosive end. He has a special talent for disastrous climaxes, and this book is no exception. It is a fitting end for a unique, complicated, great fantasy epic.

Read this book. Or read Lord Foul’s Bane if you haven’t seen what comes before. I promise the end of the journey will not make you regret one step you’ve taken along the path.

 

The Last Dark is available now from G.P. Putnam’s Sons


David Moran has hit himself in the head many times in the attempt to transport himself into an achingly beautiful fantasy land where, despite having mostly just messed around in high school, he’s qualified to be the savior of the entire world. You can follow him on Twitter.

67 comments
Marlin
1. Marlin
"...(“Never use a long word where a short one will do”), he destroys it with a condign maleficence"...very nice.

I love, love, love the first series and have read them multiple times (usually with a dictionary beside me, back in the pre-Web days). The Second Chronicles are not as strong, but still fine fantasy. I started the Last Chronicles and can't seem to get through that 900 page monstrocity of a second book, Fatal Revenant.

The Gap series is one of my favorite SciFi series and I agree that it is far stronger than the Second or Last Chronicles. I also enjoyed his Mordant's Need series, though they rank only above the Last Chronicles in my Donaldson hierarchy.

In my opinion, Donaldson's First Chronicles often don't get the regard that they are due in the fantasy world.
David Moran
2. David Moran
1. Marlin

I agree. The first trilogy is a truly landmark achievement. The second is still really entertaining, and a great epic with some tremendous setpieces, but other than being a real page-turner it doesn't do a good job justifying its own existence. The final quartet really, really needed the attention of an editor.

Even still though, there has not been a single book of his that didn't burn at least part of itself on my reader's soul--this one included. There' s a scene earlyish in the book, between a raver and some haruchai, that I will take to the grave.
David Moran
3. David Moran
1. Marlin

Oh and yeah, re: the Gap Cycle. It's amazing, and I feel like no one I know has even heard of it, let alone read it. I think the reason it never really caught on is because the first book is the weakest of the series by a country mile. I read it twice and both times it felt like more of an outline than a novel. And if you don't hook readers with your first book, well, kiss your series goodbye.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
4. Lisamarie
I was introduced to this series in high school when I took a class on science fiction - our teacher included this book in the cirriculum even though it wasn't sci-fi (possibly for the world building aspects). I kind of wish I remember what we discussed, but it was definitely shocking for me, as it was probably one of the first books I read in which the main character was not an awesome hero of awesomeness. (And gee, in light of people wanting to ban the Neil Gaiman book for the jumper scene...how would they react to the main character raping a young girl in a cave...geesh).

I went on to read the rest of the trilogy, as well as the second trilogy, but never got around to reading the third one. I still intend to, but I may need to reread the others first.
David Moran
5. David Moran
4. Lisamarie

re: not an awesome hero of awesomeness. Absolutely! One of my pet peeves as a writer and reader is the profligate misuse of the term "antihero", when people mean to indicate a hero who is at least partly villainous. That's a "Byronic hero".

Covenant, on the other hand, is closer to a true literary antihero - as in, lacking active, dynamic, heroic qualities. He actively resists participating in the action, isn't particularly altruistic or good (in the beginning at least), and is in general weaker and more passive than almost anyone around him. And while antiheroes have a pretty storied history in 20th century literary fiction, they don't occupy much real estate in fantasy, which I think is part of why, like you, I found it so fascinating when I first read it.
Marlin
6. BSD
That was exactly it. Stopped me dead in my tracks. I seem to remember it taking place in or near a river, is that right?
Marlin
8. ROBINM
The last time I read these books was in the early 80's and I never got around to the third trilogy. Do I need to read those before I try this one? I just remember them as dark and drepressing or is it that Thomas is depressed? The the books stick in my head for the use of the word damnation since I'd never seen it used before outside of the bible; most people just use damn. I thought that was really cool when I was 12 .
David Moran
9. David Moran
8. ROBINM

If you've taken Covenant 101 by reading the earlier series, you should do just fine jumping into this book.
Marlin
10. Biff from Australia
Nice piece, David. Donaldson is certainly not a flawless writer and there are indeed issues with the Chronicles in terms of pacing and characterisation. But there's always been something magnetic about these works for me - it pulls me in despite at times making my skin crawl with the depths of self-loathing and despair plumbed by some of the characters.

I agree that the use of leprosy is maybe a little unsubtle in terms of metaphor but I guess in his defence he did spend his youth in India where his father worked with lepers (as I'm sure you know), and this obviously had a deep impact on him - cue the names of the Ravers. For a modern western audience leprosy is an ideal story starter, with its deep Biblical overtones and near-banishment to the present-day third world, and hence our lack of familiarity with sufferers.
Marlin
11. Xena Catolica
I'm a holdout--LOVED the first trilogy for about 30 yrs., really like the second...and can't bring myself to read the third one. I've picked it up twice, read the first couple of pages, and felt like his prose had lost its legs. It just lacked the luminous quality of the earlier books. Am I the only one who feels that way? The first time I picked it up, I was actually pretty pissed off--this is the guy who told us of the danger of giving back something broken & that was my impression; I never got as far as the plot. But it could be I expect too much. The 1st Chronicles were the books that made me 'get it' about fantasy as a means of exploring big ideas/love/sex/death/redemption & affected me the way a lot of people 'get it' with Tolkien.
David Moran
12. David Moran
11. Xena Catolica

I had the same reaction - and same sense of betrayal - coming to this new quartet. As a fellow traveler and person who 'got it' when reading that first trilogy, I'd say don't stress yourself overmuch if the new series just wasn't working for you. It's like that all the way down.

I will however recommend - if you haven't already - you hunt down the Gap Cycle, as that has a lot of the fiery razzle and dazzle that the first Covenant series did.
Sol Foster
13. colomon
Once I got into reading Harry Potter, I made sure to buy each new book in Canada, so that I could get the original British text instead of the Americanized version. And after I bought one of them (probably #3 or #4), when I explained to the customs officer the reason for my visit to Canada, he asked me to quickly review the books for him.

And his big question was: "How do they compare to the Thomas Covenant books?"

You can imagine how that one stopped me in my tracks. :)
David Moran
14. David Moran
10. Biff from Australia

Thanks Biff! I did know about Donaldson's childhood exposure to the real misery of lepers in India. I think it's obviously responsible for how the horror of living with leprosy feels so real, so obviously lived in the Covenant books.

I wasn't quarrelling with the presence of leprosy in the story, or quarrelling at all really, just pointing out that in his use of leprosy as a symbol, Donaldson has a real heavy foot on the gas pedal, know what I mean?
Marlin
16. Biff from Australia
Man, that's got me reminiscing about some of the wonderful scenes over the course of the series ..... the Ravers at Coercri and Covenant's later redemptive caamora; the bargain of Hile Troy; Foamfollower's dash across Hotash Slay; the words of the old beggar to Linden Avery; the magic and beauty of Andelain; Covenant emerging from his stupor and mastering (the very scary) Nom; Brinn's battle against the Guardian; and Vain's only words and purpose revealed.

Great stuff!
David Betz
17. RDBetz
I read Lord Foul's Bane when it first came out. I don't remember much about it; in fact I'm not even sure if I read the rest of the first trilogy or not. All I really have is a gut level memory of intensely disliking Thomas Covenant as a character, and the book in general. It really left a bad taste in my mouth and I don't expect to ever revisit it.
David Moran
18. David Moran
16. Biff from Australia

I know exactly what you mean, Biff. Some of those scenes are just so -- POW! Right in the kisser.

Those scenes are big ones to me too, but my all star list would be:
*Lord Mhoram facing down Samadhi Satansfist alone with the krill
*When the lords stop the journey to hunker down and help Llaura who had been harmed by Lord Foul, and find themselves trapped.
*When they are at the mercy of Kasreyn of the Gyre, and Linden Avery brings Covenant out of his long catatonia and he speaks the Sandgorgon's name.
*Foamfollower's RETURN after his dash across Hotash Slay, and he laughs again.

Yo, I'm gettin teary eyed.

And yeah, there is a scene in this book involving some Haruchai and a Raver that similarly blew me away and is definitely part of my list now.
Bill Capossere
19. Billcap
I had to chuckle at “condign.” I almost used the actual number of times it appeared (after a few you start to count) in my own review of the novel, but in the end it felt too cheap. Flawed for sure, and none captured fully the impact of that first trilogy. But few do set pieces like Donaldson—some have already named a few and I can think of many others, such as Mhoram’s charge, Covenant’s agonized refusal of a summoning so as to save a young girl, several scenes with the giants, and others. And few can rip your heart out as easily and frequently. This last series I thought easily could have, and should, been done in two not-so-long books and possibly even one very good sized one (my preference for a fare-thee-well), though there were still a few of those special scenes. The first series at the least is in the must-read category for any serious readers of fantasy, and I do think the entire work needs to be seen in its whole. Though if any don’t feel like trudging through this last group (and unfortunately it is a bit of a trudge), I think one can easily pick up only The Last Dark and read the last third or so just to get the conclusion to one hell of a journey.
David Moran
20. David Moran
17. RDBetz

That is, honestly, a not-unreasonable reaction to the book.
Jimmy Dodd
21. BwanaJim
I read Lord Foul's Bane in '78 at the age of 13. I had just read The Lord of the Rings and was looking for more of the same. I had made it through the leprosy, gangrene, divorce, and overall despair, but when I got to the rape of Lena I just stopped. I honestly didn't know how to handle something like that in a hero?. I came back to it a few months later and bullied my way through it, but never went passed the first book. Now that it's over (it is really over, isn't it?) I may look at reading the whole series.

I still don't think I'll like him, though.
David Lomax
22. dlomax
David Moran: This post and its comment thread is one of my favourite Tor.com reading experiences in quite a while. You really get Donaldson. I'm a third of the way through TLD and loving every moment; though every now and then I might want Donaldson to have a more strict editor, there are also some (I think you already said it) operatic moments of passion that make the slogging through the Sarangrave worth it.

Thanks for the great post. If Tor would do a Donaldson re-read, you're the guy to do it, and I'd be sorely tempted to journey along with you. Gap and Mordant's Need as well.
Marlin
23. Biff from Australia
I second this motion!
Marlin
24. Confutus
When Thomas Covenant first appears, he is certainly does not seem a heroic character. But it's all too easy to look at his vices and ignore the virtues, those glints of silver that escape through the cracks of his embittered defiance of both the Land and the despair its enemy seeks to impose.
I find it more accurate to say that Thomas Covenant *commits* rape rather than to say that he *is* a rapist. This is precisely the distinction that Linden Avery is forced to confront in the second Chronicles. In her back story, it is revealed that she killed her mother. Is she, or is she not, a murderer? His own confrontation with what he has done and failed to do in the Land is less obvious and direct, but no less real.
The character growth of the main characters is arduous, prolonged, and painful, but it is is earned, learned, and real. I find no better examples anywhere in fantasy. I will say that the Last Dark has reveals that make a lot of what looked like slow slogging in the previous books of the series both meaningful and necessary. The whole story seems me to be be more tightly woven than David Moran seems to credit.
Shelly wb
25. shellywb
@21 I too read the books after LOTR as a teen. I hated Thomas Covenant so much, for the rape and the despair and the inability to see past his leprosy. But even though I hated him, by the end of the books I understood him in a way no book using him as a hero would have allowed. Maybe because most of us are closer to being him, the small rare-on-occasion hero who more often than not screws up, than we are to being Frodo. It was an amazing, eye-opening experience for me as a teen.
David Moran
26. David Moran
22. dlomax

That is very kind and generous of you to say. I'm glad you enjoyed reading. And I'd be lying if I said The Last Dark didn't whet my appetite to go back and start from the beginning again ...
David Moran
27. David Moran
24. Confutus

That is actually a really good point that I have never considered before. The fact that he's a grumbly pain in the neck notwithstanding, you're right: Thomas Covenant is exactly the guy to resist giving in to despair. And not because of some empty, faux-inspirational magic-wand hopefulness, but just because of his dogged insistence on simply continuing to live in the world when all things that made life pleasurable are gone.
Marlin
28. Biff from Australia
Which is why the backdrop of leprosy was such a powerful force for the character of Covenant - he had already armoured himself against the world, his world, and chosen defiance and survival as his watchwords. It was agonising watching him come to grips with the possibility of hope in an 'unreal' world but Joan, that moronic truck driver, the police, and the townsfolk who turned against him had taught him the necessary will to stubbornly resist the Despiser.
Walker White
29. Walker
While Lord Foul's Bane, and even Power that Preserves, were good, the IllEarth War is my gold standard for "Oh my God, the book is slow and depressing. Why am I still reading it?" It is exhibit A for how to kill a trilogy.

But I did not learn my lesson, and I read the second trilogy (mainly because Power that Preserves is so good). And once again the middle book kills it: Covenant is catatonic for the majority of The One Tree.

I not going to do this again with a third series.
Marlin
30. nizlemia
These books are just so unique and original. I can think of nothing before or after which is even remotely comparable. Back in the early 80's I was a fervent fan of Terry Brooks, David Eddings and Raymond Feist. And then I read Lord Foul's Bane. And my mind was blown. Like seeing in color for the very first time. It was the first fantasy story I had read that was written for adults. What a concept!
Marlin
31. Steve, from the internet
Wasn't the Gap cycle deliberately written as a sci-fi flavoured adaptation of the Ring Cycle? There's even a guy in it who traded in his eye for a magic sci-fi one.
Personally I thought the Mordant's Need books (the ones with the mirrors) and the Daughter of Regals short story collection were both better than the Gap books, which seemed more like an attempt to make a back of an envelope concept and an "I've started so I'll finish" into a series than a really inspired series of books.

I genuinely didn't know there was a third trilogy in this series. I'm conflicted about picking it up again. The original trilogy has stayed with me for (good grief, am I really this old) the better part of 30 years while a lot of other books haven't made a lasting ripple, so I'll probably end up reading them to tie up the story.
Marlin
32. The_Duck_Is_Rising
Donaldson's style is a PITA, it's a gelid condign panting-with-rage PITA. (I won't quote anything more of that.) But he manages to draw such arresting images - the Hansen's Disease suffer on top of a spur of rock, the Wraiths of Andelain, the Giant Foamfollower, the ur-vile lore-master and their attack wedges ... and while I didn't care much for Thomas Covenant, I knew already a lot about Hansen's Disease and felt quite at home with the fact - there was a group of sufferers where I grew up and my Mum told me about them when I was about five or six, about a little girl who had rolled into the fire without waking while she slept and suffered third degree burns as a result, about the man whose toes had dropped off due to rampant gangrene, and the like.

So I never had any problems with that. Its literary extrapolation - the contradiction of him refusing to believe in Lena's reality while simultaneously grabbing at the reality of his re-awakened sexuality - well, it's left its mark on my imagination.

Those who find Thomas Covenant too hard to take should console themselves with reading Molokai, the biography of the irascible Father Damien at the leprosarium on Molokai Island in Hawai'i. They might gain some perspective.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
33. hoopmanjh
I first read Thomas Covenant back in high school -- I still have my boxed paperbacks. They blew me away. (And I apparently glossed over just how miserable a bastard Covenant actually is.) The Wounded Land had already been released, but I didn't read it for years; I wanted to wait until the entire second trilogy was finished and I could read it all in one go. I read those books many times back in the day.

When the first new one came out, I went back and reread the original six and their flaws were much more evident. Having said that, I still found much to like about them -- mostly Donaldson's ability to craft those massive setpieces as mentioned back in 16 & 18 above.

In some ways, oddly enough, I think The One Tree might be my favorite of the series despite its pronounced lack of Covenant, mostly because of the places they visit overseas.

And I appreciate the fact that in all three of the series, the Land has changed profoundly -- it's not just simply rehashing the original setting over and over.
Lisamarie LiGreci-Newton
34. Lisamarie
Wow, this is definitely inspiring me to read it over again, since many of these scenes are triggering flickers of memories, but only flickers. Plus, I would probably get a bit more out of it.

25. @shellywb - I find this comment interesting - "Maybe because most of us are closer to being him, the small rare-on-occasion hero who more often than not screws up, than we are to being Frodo."

I must say that I have a slightly different perspective, for a few reasons. One, I find that commiting rape (and yes, that makes you a rapist. It may not be ALL you are, but it is part of what you are) is a little more than just screwing up. But, that aside - Frodo is not the perfect hero a lot of people think. In fact, he fails at his quest. Tolkien even received hate mail after the books were published about how Frodo failed and should not have been honored or rewarded at the end - which, to him, was missing the point. So, I definitely feel like Frodo at times - small, seemingly unimportant, and unable to resist or truly conquer evil, but still striving as much as I can - while knowing it's not truly enough and reling on/hoping for grace or providence.

There are certainly differences between the two and the stories - as others have pointed out, Frodo is certainly more active than Covenant, and more idealized, and not as jaded. But (and I really like the comments regarding his sheer stubbornness in not giving into despair - I went through a very rough patch in middle school due to bullying/isolation and I remember that feeling - including telling myself that I was going to continue to live just to be contrary) - in some ways I see a similarity in their determination to just slog on through what seems like a hopeless situation.
Thomas Thatcher
35. StrongDreams
The strange thing is, I know I read the first trilogy around the time it came out (which would have made me 12 or so) and I think I read the second trilogy (or at least started it), but I have absolutely no memory of them other than a recollection of one scene of Covenant shaving with the power of his ring. Years later, when I was in my 30s, I bought both volumes of Mordant's Need, read the first few chapters, and had a revelation, "oh yes, another self-hating protagonist who isn't even sure of her own existence" and I dropped both books off at Goodwill. I think the problem for me is that I never connected with Convenant as the protagonist, my relationship was more with the secondary characters, and when I picked up the second trilogy and found they were all gone, I just had no interest. I just have no inclination to go back to The Land, even though many smart people are convinced they're wonderful books.
Marlin
36. J Town
I loved these books, though it took me some time to get into them. (I was pretty young when I started Lord Foul's Bane.) The writing was captivating to me and no one can throw a gut punch like Donaldson. I enjoyed both the first and second series, though the character of Linden Avery took a lot of getting used too. An awful lot, though I see where she was necessary for Covenant's ultimate transformation.

The last series...I enjoyed it in parts and saw some of the same magic at times but it did plod a bit. It was the little things. The Masters of the Land just weren't as compelling to me as previous Haruchai (Stave being the exception), nor were the Swordmainnir as captivating as previous Giants that we had met. I did like the addition of the Insequent, but they were basically absent from The Last Dark. The Ravers weren't as menacing, Lord Foul not quite as overwhelming. The ending was good, but felt kind of...rushed? A lot of journey to have the climax be over so fast, though I did like wrapping things up.

At the end of the day, it was an enjoyable conclusion to a long journey, but it was, to me, clearly a step down from previous books.
Steven Halter
37. stevenhalter
I read the first and second series pretty much as they came out. Haven't read the third series yet but I plan to. There is fantastic stuff in these. The Land is a great work of imagination and as Bill said, Donaldson does set pieces very well. Saltheart's trials stick with me to this day.
Covenant's failings are vast. I definitely wanted to shake him a number of times although that wouldn't really have done much good as he persisted in his disbelief in the face of much larger shakings than I could administer. From all of this, his gradual working out of flaws provides a very interesting (painful) journey.
Marlin
38. Dr. Thanatos
I remember reading Lord Foul in college in the 70's. I was struck by how the bad guys had such great speechwriters and all Covenant could do was whine about "I'm a leper, my life sucks, it would be an improvement to be in a country-western song, etc etc etc."

While I liked the first two series in that they seemed to tell a full story, I grew more and more tired of Donaldson's logorrhea. The sun is hot, I get it; no need to get all gelid on how green the grass is...

I absolutely could not get past book 7 and haven't tried. Maybe I should in hopes that Foulie will get another good monologue in about how it's a good thing to worship him. But for the rest, feh...
Marlin
39. Delafina
So, am I correct in understanding that this is yet another high fantasy series where female characters exist only as objects or character goads to male heroes? Wait, reading the wiki entry, let me rephrase that: am I correct in my understanding that this is a series in which a male "hero" rapes a female character, who then conveniently is removed from the story for a book until we find out she produced a daughter for the hero, and who then comes to idolize the hero?

Sounds wonderful.

I had this on my list of classic fantasy series I meant to get around to reading; I'm glad I read this first.

And #24, if you commit rape, you are a rapist.
David Moran
40. David Moran
29. Walker

Covenant is catatonic for a lot of that series, yeah, but when he wakes up, wow, right? And as often observed in the comments section here, he can be a bit of a butt, so I wasn't too mad getting a big ol Covenant break right about then.

30. nizlemia

I totally agree, and clearly remember that moment myself, in about 1989, of first reading Lord Foul's Bane and just being ... whaaaaaaaaaaaaat. To this day I haven't read anything else like it.


31. Steve, from the internet

You are correct. While there are obvious parallels to Wagner in the Covenant books, Donaldson did write the Gap books with the intent to create a sci-fi Ring cycle.
David Moran
41. David Moran
32. The_Duck_Is_Rising

Added to my list!

33. hoopmanjh

I know what you mean. Donaldson's flaws of style are much more evident to me at 38 than they were at 14, though over time I have come to view them as the necessary mortar for those inevitable thrilling setpieces. I don't think they can be considered as separate elements of his style.

34. Lisamarie

Yeah, I also don't think Frodo is quite the right fit for the trope of OMGAWESOME heroes in fantasy literature, but as you say, he tries, which, that alone sets him well apart from Covenant.
Marlin
42. J Town
To #39

Yes, it's polarizing. Either someone will stick with the story through the rape or they won't. And I don't defend it. Ultimately, neither does the story. Thomas Covenant is not a hero. For most of the first trilogy (and heck parts of the whole series), he isn't even the most interesting character in the books and almost never the most sympathetic. The Land itself, Mhoram!, Foamfollower!!!, Brinn, heck even Hile Troy are more interesting and easy to relate to.

However, the series does ultimately shift to Linden Avery as more of the protagonist, although Covenant is always a necessary part of things. So I wouldn't say that the series is one where females exist only to be character goads for the main hero. Lena, alas, is pretty much nothing but this, but she's far from the only female character. And the consequences of Covenant's rape of Lena are very far-reaching indeed. It's not a series that I feel can be so easily judged and discarded based on a wikipedia summary, but then I can very easily see how women would be immediately and understandably put off by it. It's a pretty horrific thing that Donaldson puts the reader through.

Donaldson has a habit of this (I never did enjoy the character of Angus Thermopyle after the first book of the Gap series, despite his efforts). It's certainly food for thought.
David Moran
43. David Moran
35. StrongDreams

Ah yes, the superhero shave! I think that's in book 4 or 5, and I remember thinking at the time, "Well, that's handy." I also think I've seen Superman do it with his heat vision and a mirror a few times.


36. J Town

I had a similar hard time with the second trilogy at first. But I think Linden Avery was important. My biggest bone of contention with the latter trilogy and quartet is that ... Covenant's journey is, for me, really emotionally completed in The Power That Preserves . Afterwards I really most enjoy when Covenant is relegated to kind of a support role, and everyone treats him like a weird sage or hero which ... he is, at that point, he's earned that.

The journey of the latter books ... plot-wise is just as riveting, for my money, as the first trilogy, but their handicap is that the journey - the emotional one I mean - of (ostensibly) the main character is less clear cut.


38. Dr. Thanatos

Oh god yes. It's funny, reading your comment brought me back to that first book, to the slip of paper I carried with me on which I recorded the many words unfamiliar to me. I don't mean to toot my own horn, but I rarely have more than one of those per book, if at all. For Lord Foul's Bane? I had two whole pages. Gelid. Gelid. Really dude? Gelid?

And "laval", as in the oft-described "laval eyes" of Drool Rockworm. To this day I'm pretty sure he coined that one himself, because I've never found it in a dictionary, and have never come across it in another work.
Marlin
44. Kerita27
I read the first book when I was...14? Maybe 15. My Dad loves these books, so I read the first one. When I got to the rape scene, I threw the book across the room, where it stayed for three days. Then my Dad was all "ISN'T IT GREAT!" I figured maybe I needed to give it a second chance. Maybe Covenant would be eaten by a bear and Lena would turn out to be the heroine. I was deeply unimpressed by the complete lack of lethal bear attacks.
David Moran
45. David Moran
39. Delafina

In short: yes.

In grasping at brevity I maybe downplayed the degree to which these books are hella problematic when it comes to masculinity and feminity. I mean, I feel like I could extemporize an essay right now easily triple the length of this review on how problematic it is.

I will put it to you straight: when it comes to gender, these books are a problem. It's not like George R. R. Martin where you can easily have a spirited discussion of his works as feminist texts, or as having feminist subtext. You are right, the rape of Lena is all about the consequences and emotional fallout for the attacker, not the victim. That alone, as I mention, is a legitimate reason to sneer in disgust at the books when you see them on the shelf, rather than pick them up and read them.

And while Covenant takes a bit of a back seat in books 4 through 10 to his female counterpart and co-protagonist Linden Avery, the presence of a woman as a main character (as mentioned there are books in which Covenant is catatonic through the whole thing) doesn't really change the root of the problem, which is Donaldson's take on men and women.

(Avery is introduced in book 4 and doesn't get mentioned in my review because I stuck to describing the first trilogy.)

I mean, I legitimately believe that Stephen R. Donaldson is a well-meaning writer who at least thinks he's thoughtfully grappling with gender. But he sucks at it, the way, say, well ... let me tell a story.

My mom raised me to be super aggressively anti-racism, for which I am infinitely and eternally grateful. When I was a kid I would sometimes meet some of her friends, kind of stridently left-wing in that right-on 1970s way. And while they clearly and sincerely believed racism was wrong and evil, and would speak freely on the subject and politically organize for it ... at times, as a kid, I thought they were really kind of ... patronizing towards the minorities whose empowerment they were devoted to, and pretty classist and patrician in their attitudes and behavior, and, well, kinda racist sometimes.

That's kind of how I feel about Donaldson. I feel like he often means well but ... Yeah, he sucks at it.

And don't even get me started on The Gap Cycle, which could aptly be renamed the Trigger Warning Cycle, as I remember feeling sometimes like those books were a bizarre round-robin of sexual assault in which most characters, male and female, took equal turns as victims.
David Moran
46. David Moran
44. Kerita27

Yes, that is a reasonable and not-incorrect reaction to that scene.

As I first read it, when I was 14 (as you were), I actually kind of passed over the scene because I literally could not conceive of a story in which you were given a protagonist to follow where that scene actually happens. I thought it was a dream or hallucination or I'd clearly misread it and what was happening wasn't what I thought it was.

I think it was the end of the book or the beginning of the next when it finally dawned on dumb old me, Holy crap, that thing really HAPPENED?
Marlin
47. The Other Lex
Many spoilers regarding the first trilogy below.

One of the things I find fascinating about Donaldson (and it's a theme throughout most of his work) is that he never accepts the notion of "redemption."

Covenant does horrible things (and as Donaldson protagonists go, he's not even the worst of the lot!)--and one horrible thing in particular that destroys life after life. Covenant's rape of Lena is, in many ways, the most damning depiction of rape I've seen in fantasy literature. It doesn't just ruin her life, but the lives of everyone close to her; pain begets pain, and Covenant is indicted for essentially bringing a moral disease into the Land. We're treated to a slow, relentless depiction of this for book after book, and decades into the story Covenant is STILL discovering new wrenching repercussions of his actions.

Of course, Covenant's in denial of his guilt for some time, but the moral viewpoint of the books is pretty clear. Not only did he do an atrocious thing, but he will always be guilty. He can never make amends. He tries, and it becomes clear that his attempts to make amends are just another form of denial--the scales cannot be balanced, the evil cannot be erased. He'll have to live with his awful actions for the rest of his life, and so will everyone else.

Yet that never puts him beyond the obligation to do right, either. In Donaldson's moral universe, guilt and sin, like leprosy, are conditions one must learn to manage. Giving in to guilt kills you, and that's ultimately pointless. Denying or forgiving guilt ruins you. All you can do is perform your VSE every minute and attempt to move forward with your life as a better human being--no redemption available, but no excuses allowed.

I think one can reasonably argue that the immediate depiction of the rape and aftermath don't work (in fact, I find a lot of Lord Foul's Bane doesn't quite work--it's incredibly ambitious, and necessary to the later books, but it often doesn't succeed at its aims), though it's certainly never glamorized.

I also think people who throw the book across the room and declare "I don't want to read about a rapist" aren't necessarily wrong to do so--that's a fair enough reason not to keep going.

I like 'em anyway.


One thing I wish the text had addressed more explicitly is the nature of old Lena's inner life. I always took the fact that she still adores Covenant as something akin to Covenant's own Unbelief--she can't ever forgive Covenant, but acknowledging that the "savior of the Land" did such a terrible thing to her would destroy her. So she takes solace by creating her own version of the truth and denying the horror of what happened.

Unfortunately, we never really get inside old Lena's head. I do feel like Donaldson is generally weaker at writing women than men--Elena never quite clicked for me, and Morn (from the Gap books) is one of the less personally compelling members of the cast. I think David Moran in #45 is being a little harsh (and awfully forgiving of GRRM in comparison...), but I don't entire disagree, either.

Still making my way through Wounded Land in my great Covenant re-read, so I'm undecided how Linden fits in yet.
David Moran
48. David Moran
47. The Other Lex

Yes! Agreed how that scene simply doesn't work, which is a problem given how central to the narrative it is. You just kind of have to move forward with how the scene should have worked, to you, as a reader, than how it actually does. It's got a lot of problems - mechanically, I mean, as the literary device Donaldson hopes it is - but prime among them is that while you're supposed to feel that Covenant legitimately believes himself to be in an unreal space where morality and immorality are irrelevant, you as the reader never believe it. Covenant is suspicious, but we readers are credulous, and believe what we are shown: is the character really in a weird fantasy land? Answer: yes. Is it a dream or hallucination? Answer: no. Donaldson never really puts in any effort at all to make the reader feel like it's possibly a delusion, aside from assuming that transportation to a fantasy land (in a fantasy novel no less!) must obviously be hallucinatory and unreal.
Marlin
49. The Other Lex
48. David Moran

Agreed on all counts. One interesting side note, though, is that I think Donaldson realized it himself (albeit a bit too late): There are several scenes in The Illearth War that work to justify or explain elements in Lord Foul's Bane that don't properly come through in the original text. Alas, these scenes doesn't retroactively make Lord Foul's Bane a better novel, but they do, I think, do some useful patchwork to strengthen the foundations of the series.
David Moran
50. David Moran
49. The Other Lex

I think a more general issue with Donaldson as a writer is ... he's just bad at beginnings. The set-up to each trilogy/series he's written are almost uniformly weaker than what follows (I'm looking at you, Gap Cycle), and his smaller or single-book efforts (like Mordant's Need, or his detective novels) just kind of fall flat. I think honestly it's just part of his style -- he needs that sediment on top of sediment, that avalance of verbiage, to build an effective foundation to reach your emotions. Getting there can be kind of a pain, but when he does, whoa, look out.
Marlin
51. Confutus
@39
The problem with trying to tell a tale of repentance and redemption from damnation is that the character first has to do something damnable. He does. But that's not the whole truth about him and it's certainly not the end of the story.

Lena's absence from the story is hardly convenient. Her mother, father, lover, daughter, and other assorted characters all take turns presenting Covenant with horrifying, life-shattering consequences of his most selfish act. For three books. So does she herself when they finally meet again. Her "idolization" of him is explicitly insane, delusional, and tragic.

The main reason I object to the simple characterization of him as a rapist is, that label may imply that he is a repeat or multiple rapist. That he is not. He acknowledges and tries to amend what he has done. It's impossible, but he does try.
David Moran
52. David Moran
51. Confutus

While this is true, I think the unavoidably problematic thing about the whole situation is that it is viewed through the lens of the rapist. There's not really any mitigating it: you either accept it or you don't. We the reader, if we persist in reading the book, have literally no choice but to empathize and try to understand the feelings of a man who committed rape on a girl. (I don't know if he ever explicity defines Lena's age, but she is definitely not an adult.) Yes, the message is that there is no redemption and forgiveness for him, but that means it's ... still all about him. The guilt he feels, the destruction of lives around around him, the ways it changes him -- the books are about how these things affect him and make him feel. It's not Lena's story, it's not Atiaran's story, it's not Elena's story. It's Covenant's story.

And also yeah, rapist doesn't imply "habitual rape" - that's why we have a separate term "serial rapist". Covenant raped, he's a rapist. If you commit a murder, you can't be all "But it was just one!" You're a murderer. You don't really get to have a mulligan on that because you also felt bad about it afterwards. Which, as The Other Lex points out above, is in a way Donaldson's point.

Still, again, the very structure of the book privileges the feelings of the attacker over those of the victim. That is a big deal.
David Moran
53. David Moran
51. Confutus

I say this not to be dismissive of your reading of the text, only to stress how important I feel it is to grapple unapologetically with the dicey elements of it.
Marlin
54. DRickard
This image pretty succinctly sums up the series
Bill Stusser
55. billiam
I both love the first two trilogies and loathe them. I love them for the Land and the supporting characters and the incredible, I can't believe that actually just happened moments. But I hate, hate, HATE Thomas Covenant.

The first time I tried to read LFB I got as far as the rape scene and never got any further. This was while I was a teenager and the first two trilogies were all there was. The book had been recomended to me by a few older people I knew as the epitome of the fantasy genre, but I just didn't get it. How could you root for a hero who was not only a rapist but so damn unlikable?

Later, after I graduated from high school I tried the books again. This time I made it all the way through to the end of book six but I still hated Thomas Covenant. I just can't get around it, I can't stand the guy.

I recently reread the first three books and they are still powerful and I couldn't believe just how much of the story I still remembered, but I couldn't bring myself to reread the second trilogy. I decided I needed a break from Thomas Covenant.

I've thought about reading the new books, even picked up the first book a couple times at the book store, but have yet to buy it. Maybe after I finish Steelheart (the next book sitting on my to read pile) I'll give the new series a try.
David Moran
56. David Moran
54. DRickard

Yes! That is it in a nutshell.

55. billiam

I know how you feel, and have had a similar love/hate relationship with the books ... pretty much my entire adult life.
j p
57. sps49
It was too briefly mentioned, and is difficult to relate to, and is no excuse anyway, but Covenant (not the readers) thought he was hallucinating was because his dead nerves came back to life. Which is impossible.

This does not help Lena, nor anyone else.

David Moran @27-

That is a big part of it for me. I am annoyed when TV reporters ask someone "how do you deal with it? make it through? survive? get past whatever bad thing happened. At least in my case, and as you stated for Covenant, there is no secret- you just endure.

Also, despite the tendency of some of his books to mash someone into the dirt, and mash them some more before they even begin to get up, Donaldson is seriously good at scenes that grab me and don't let go.

I stopped reading Fatal Revenant when Covenant's ____ shows up at Revelstone, but will have to start again.
Marlin
58. Delafina
@51 & @52 - I'm not saying there's an issue with telling a story through the eyes of an evil person, or trying to nuance a character who's done something unforgivable -- terrible people are still capable of doing good things, and no one's 100% good or 100% evil. Literature doing those things is doing exactly what storytelling *should* do: give you different perspectives.

But there's an issue when you have your character rape an underaged female character, then take away her agency and make her nothing but a catalyst for the male character's angst 'n feels, and THEN have her come back and idolize the guy, and THEN sacrifice herself for him.

You can have a character be a victim of something terrible and still let her be a person and have agency. I mean, look at George R.R. Martin, who manages to show characters having agency and personhood even when he's telling his story through the super-limited viewpoints of a shallow tween girl obsessed with court fashion, or a sociopathic knight, or a shallow and coddled teenage boy.

The treatment of female characters as nothing more than adjuncts, prizes, and catalysts for male characters has real effects on how other writers write, how people treat each other in the real world, and even in what sort of stories get published.

I'm not saying every book has to take steps toward fixing the problem, but it's disturbing to hear that a series I see on pretty much every "Top Scifi/Fantasy Novels You Must Read!" list not only doubles down on the misogyny and objectification, it takes it further than most of the books already called out as problematic do in several different directions.
Marlin
59. Delafina
@45 David Moran

Thanks for the elaboration.

I'm really struggling right now with the question of what works we choose as a community to recommend and treat as classics. I'm not in favor of censorship, and I am very much in favor of recognizing that there's nothing wrong in loving a work that's problematic (assuming that love doesn't lead you to insist that it *isn't* problematic), and that works that are hella problematic on one front can still have value on others. For that matter, I'm not sure there's such a thing as literature that *isn't* problematic in one aspect or another. We all have privilege blinders in one area or another.

But I'm also starting to get frustrated by the fact that if SF/fantasy can be said to have a canon, a lot of that canon is more problematic than it should be, and everyone sort of nods at the problems and yet those are the books that keep getting held up as examples, keep getting rereads, keep getting featured.

I work in games, which is probably more problematic--at least in regards to gender--than pretty much any other field of entertainment right now, and I was recently on a panel where a bunch of writers and designers talked about why the one-note characters and stories that are the norm in games are holding them back as an art form. And one of the issues we talked about was that not only is it a major problem that there aren't many female (or racial minority, or non-straight) viewpoints in the stories being told, let alone female writers, but that with so much of the source material that we draw from (whether it's the movies and books most game designers have read, or even just the western lit canon in general) written by men, *female writers are learning to write female characters from men.*

And these things have real repercussions when it comes to who gets hired, who gets published, how we get treated by our coworkers, how we get treated by the fans when we do claim authority and agency, how we think about ourselves, etc.

The problems aren't quite as dramatic as in games, but they're still there in SFF writing and fandom, as illustrated pretty damningly by the whole recent SFWA nastiness.

So I guess what I'm getting at here is why this series? What's so great about it, what does it do that other books or series don't, that it's worth continuing to tell fans of SFF, by the amount we talk about it, if nothing else, that *this* is a vital entry in the SFF canon, that *this* is something they should read, learn from, emulate, when it not only engages in tropes that reinforce that women don't belong in SFF as agents, as speakers, as viewpoint-holders, but does so more egregiously than most of what's out there? What's balancing that out, that everyone seems to treat this book as more worthwhile than a lot of what else is out there?
David Moran
60. David Moran
57. sps49

Yeah, I get that Donaldson tells us "Covenant feels or thinks X", but in that moment, Donaldson really really fails to sell X - which is kind of a big deal because it's a big moment, and in other places in the story Donaldson has shown himself to be really good at selling other Xs as believable to us, the reader. So I think it makes that moment feel a little contrived.
David Moran
61. David Moran
58. & 59. Delafina

Yes, yes. Yes. Yes. And yes. You are correct on all counts. The suppression of brilliant female (and queer and nonwhite) writers from the canon is a thing that quite dwarfs this one weird writer and this one weird series, and me defending whether these deserve greater canonicity than I think they have. Dwarfs by several orders of magnitude.

This is a thing I've struggled with since I first read the books, and quite a bit moreso in the last decade(ish) of my life as I've come to more formally recognize and try to engage with the pernicious, pervasive effects of misogyny in popular culture, and in the media I say that I love. I will tell you that it's difficult for me to mount an effective defense of the series on those grounds without sounding - to myself - like an awful apologist.

It's also a thing that I don't even know if I should attempt. It's been ... probably close to 20 years since I last read Lord Foul's Bane (for the 2nd or 3rd time), so I'd be lying if I said I wasn't a little afraid to re-read it. At 38 I'm not the same reader I was at 18. If there was a "major fantasy work" that was coming out today, in 2013, that had the plot described to me the way the plot of Lord Foul's Bane was described to you -- I would unhesitatingly tell that book to go **** itself. What? Main character just fridges some young girl in the first hundred pages? No.

There is no force on Earth, no review so persuasive, no rhetoric so unimpeachable, no critical consensus so unanimous, that would compel me to read that book. No way. I have better ways to spend my time and my money. The only thing that would convince me would be if someone I personally know and trust told me to read it. And you don't know me.

My apologia largely rests on the subjective fact that, 24 years after first picking it up, I am still thinking about this series. While I do recognize the books' deficits of style, and their problematic tropes, the fact is they contain so many memorable moments I will carry to the end of my life. That is not hyperbole. There are books that I unreservedly love more than anything - wonderful, perfect books, books that I am not ashamed of recommending - that do not keep me up at night remembering odd scenes here and there the way that I, to this day, reminisce over scenes in the first Covenant trilogy.

This may speak more to the emotional development of 14 year old boys than to any real merits of the series - though I don't believe that that's fully the case. I guess I'm going to have to re-read them to find out for sure. (Oh god, did I just commit to re-reading these ... )
Marlin
62. The Other Lex
59. Delafina and 61. David Moran:

As I mentioned above, I recently started rereading the books for the first time since my childhood--I'm only up to the start of the second trilogy, so my opinions are still changing, but I feel I've got a fresh enough view to make a few arguments.

Let's approach it two ways. First, are the Covenant books so problematic in regards to their treatment of women that this should overshadow other factors? And second, what do the Covenant books have to offer that is unique in the field?

To the first question--and obviously there's no objectively right answer here--I find that for all the problematic aspects, there's clear enough authorial intent that I can forgive a lot. Yes, rape is used as a character development tool for a male character, but it's not as if Donaldson shies away from the horror of it all and the consequences on other people.

Elena is probably the biggest problem in terms of being a female character who feels like she exists primarily to service Covenant's plot... but even with Elena, Donaldson tries to make her powerful, brilliant, intense, and deeply flawed. It usually doesn't work and she ends up coming across as completely broken, but it never feels to me like Donaldson is an author who isn't interested in fully realizing his female characters.

There are some fine smaller roles for women, as well--some of the other Lords and Atiaran, in particular. The mother of the rape victim has as much dignity and as strong moments as anyone in the books. (Really, Donaldson does much better work with Lena's parents and would-be lover than with Lena and Elena--all three loathe Covenant in their own ways, all three grudgingly recognize that he's the only one who can save the Land, and all three wrestle with how they've been taught to always love and forgive... but never can forgive Covenant. Nor do we feel that they ever should.)

Now, one can reasonably ask, "Does authorial intent matter?" In this case, I think it does--from an artistic perspective, I think an ambitious and failed attempt to grapple with big ideas is far more worthy of attention than a work that doesn't make missteps but doesn't aim high.

Which brings us to the second point: What do the Covenant books have to offer that is unique in the field?

I really wasn't sure what to expect before I starting rereading the books. I was concerned that they'd end up being nothing more than especially angsty and wordy versions of more standard epic fantasy novels.

But they're really not. The Covenant books are astonishingly internal narratives. I can't think of another fantasy series so intent on taking us, step by step, through every moment in a damaged person's psyche. Part of why Lord Foul's Bane doesn't work especially well is because we spend it entirely inside the head of a man who's in a deep depression--of course it's dreary and dull in parts! That's no excuse and it doesn't make it a good novel on the whole, but as Donaldson grows as a writer this dedication begins to pay off--living with Covenant through his transformation is immensely powerful.

This internal focus extends to the external elements as well. Post-Tolkein fantasy tends to view internally consistent worldbuilding as its own virtue. The Covenant novels really don't--everything that exists exists to reflect in some way upon Covenant himself. Everything is metaphor (and sometimes explicitly so in the text). This isn't a new idea, but it's rare that modern fantasy embraces it to this extent.

Finally, one other thing has surprised me during my reread: There is some amazing "that's just so cool" moments when it comes to the fantastic elements. The Sunbane is a wonderfully realized "only in fantasy" idea with a spectacular visual and equally strong emotional resonance. The journey under Melenkurion Skyweir in The Illearth War is tremendous spectacle. Lord Foul himself, for all his scenery-chewing, is a rendition of ultimate evil C.S. Lewis might be proud of. And the Haruchai, and the jheherrin, and so on.

(Of course, once again, Lord Foul's Bane raises its head as the weakest link. There's cool stuff in there, but there's also a lot of warmed-over Tolkein. I wish I could recommend just skipping it and going straight to Illearth War, but I just can't imagine it working. And I can't really tell anyone to read 500 troublesome pages to get to the good stuff.)

In other words, I can't think of any series that does what Donaldson tries to do and does it better. For people who find the idea of reading the internal narrative of a suffering and guilty (as in "has sinned," not as in "feels bad") man and watching him grapple with his own nature through the vehicle of a powerfully realized fantasy setting intriguing, I'd say it's worthwhile--even with all the problems.

Other people may disagree!

And David, you really should reread them. I pretty much gave up on series fantasy years ago because it Takes Too Long (I'm a slow reader), but I haven't regretted the time spent so far.

Delafina, you probably shouldn't bother--it's such an enormous investment of time, and you're shying away for good reason--but you might pick up one of Donaldson's short story collections. (Which also contain rape--both of women and men--and some problematic but ambitious depictions of women. But like the Covenant novels, they can be terribly powerful as well as problematic. "The Woman Who Loved Pigs" is both my favorite Donaldson short and the one I have the most difficulty defending....)

Regardless, I've really enjoyed this discussion. Makes me miss the glory days of rec.arts.sf.written.
Marlin
63. Confutus
One might claim the female characters in the Chronicles serve only as adjuncts or catalysts for Covenant's development, but if that is the case, it's equally true for for all the male characters. The work
certainly does not "reinforce tropes that women do not belong as
agents, as speakers, as viewpoint-holders. " I dare anyone to read about Atiaran's march to Andelain with Covenant at her stiff, accusing back and still say that with a straight face. Lord Mhoram's explanation of why Elena, and not himself, is High Lord, is also relevant.

If one looks for examples of women who center their lives around undeserving abusive men, the romance genre is a worse offender than SF&F. Few of the women who madly pant after rogues and thieves have Lena's excuse of adolescent hero-worship, frozen by trauma and compounded by incurable delusion. When they cross paths again, she is no prize.

The Covenant who appears in the beginning is on track to losing his grim struggle to survive the social consequences of his leprosy. As a result of his experiences in the Land, he learns, or re-learns about such things as fidelity, simple kindness, self-sacrifice, courage, humor, friendship, and beauty in the face of overwhelming malice and adversity. He learns how to live and not merely survive. Through the characters of the Land, the author shows us these things rather than preaching. This is why people are moved by these stories, in spite of the protagonist's flaws.
Marlin
64. Eugene R.
One feature of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant books that truly impressed me was the psychological realism in the depiction of Covenant waking up in Fantasyland and denying its reality, which is what most of us, in similar circumstances would do, and the consequences of his terrible decision to indulge himself in what he believes is a dream. It strikes me as a subversion of "fantasy as wish fulfillment" that was a long time a-coming, even as it also subverts Covenant as hero.

And if Mr. Donaldson was not respectful toward the writing advice of George Orwell ("Never use a long word where a short one will do"), he does fulfill William Faulkner's credo: "In writing, you must kill all your darlings." The Wounded Land is the most scarifying desecration by an author of his own work that I have read.
Marlin
65. i can't think of an alias
I didn't want to comment on this thread until I had finished Last Dark (which I did last night). I am first and foremost thrilled by the depth of the commentary. I thought that this series was largely forgotten.

I feel no need to add to the discussion of Donaldson's flaws as a writer. For anyone who has read the series, they have suffered through them (for a long time). Clearly, each installment has been a step down from the one that came before.

I do feel compelled to comment on his world-building. The Land is probably my favorite fantasy world of all time. Sure it is not always internally consistent, but it shines with a unique beauty and originality. No dwarves or medieval castles here, just places and people like no other.

Remember that Donaldson was one of the earliest writers in the post-Tolkien wave. Unlike Brooks, Eddings or other blatant copy-cats, Donaldson' creation and protagonist were ground-breaking.
Marlin
66. Paul M
"Subtlety of metaphor is not Donaldson’s strong suit."
Including that bit where he makes it plain that they have to climb up into Mt Thunder's a*hole? Found myself saying aloud "Ok, Stephen, I get it."
The archaic language is used to acheive a slow-mo effect, like movie ramping. It's used before anything involving magic. Without it, you'd just have "there was a blue flash, and the roof came down". Over way too quick.
My take on the ending here: http://paulmurray.wordpress.com/2013/11/06/the-last-dark/
Marlin
67. Doug I
Thanks for the review and the discussion. I reviewed the first two trilogies a long time ago on rec.arts.sf.written, but I liked this review better. It was nice to have somewhere to turn to process everything after I finally finished the series. Since these books were released at long time intervals, I had to reread this series after book four came out in order to really remember everything that was going on. I'm glad I did. Didn't quite have the will to start all the way back with LFB, but I figure that 10-book sequence will be a project I will enjoy 5-10 years from now.

Like a few other fans, this was one of the first fantasy series I read as a teenager. I had read Tolkien prior to this, but I was in middle school at the time and had no appreciation or patience for that (this fact changed greatly as I matured). I liked Covenant better at the time because I was older and could digest it better. I didn't really appreciate the awfulness of the rape and the problems with male/female characters mentioned above. After all, all the other speculative fiction I had read was fairly similar.

Anyway, I say all that as a way of acknowledging what I have always felt about this series: it is flawed, and it is not for everyone (for a variety of reasons). I still recall a review I read a long time ago that went something like, "God, all he did was whine! I got sick of it in the first 100 pages, and just for fun, I flipped to the middle of the third book, and he was still bloody complaining!"

But for me, it was enormously memorable. Remember...

- When Atiaran threw her knife into the ground and Covenant half expected the Land to bleed
- the Celebration of Spring
- Foamfollower's journey with Covenant to Revelstone
- Amok's appearance
- the march of Hile Troy's army
- the entrance to Garroting Deep
- Coercri
- the cave of the Earthblood
- Lord Mhoram's Victory
- the healer in Morinmoss
- the destruction of the Staff of Law
- the run across Hotash Slay

And that's just from the first trilogy. I haven't read the first trilogy in at least ten years, and I still have vivid mental images of all of these things. I can't say that about any other series. I don't have nearly as many similar recollections of other SF works from that time in my life (even books I truly loved). The Covenant series was memorable, and I will savor every book as long as I have a mind to remember them.

I don't agree that the quality of writing declined, nor would I say it improved as the books kept coming out. But it did change. Thank God I had my iphone with me when I was reading the last set. It was a little annoying to run across yet another new word I hadn't seen in my 30+ years since I started reading a lot (never though I'd see someone outdo Gene Wolfe). I had to decide to either pause in the story to google "definition bedizened" or to just plow through and guess the definition by context (and therefore perhaps miss a subtle point or an important image I needed to grasp).

That part was worse, and I recognize that like Stephen King, Donaldson has decided he has outgrown the need of a good editor. But you know what? I've got time, and I enjoy watching great artists indulge themselves, like I enjoy the extended edition of Lord of the Rings because three hours per movie just isn't long enough. So more story was not worse for me. I devoured it.

This last quartet felt kind of like Covenant All-Stars edition. Donaldson made use of time travel and conversations with the dead so that we got to see interactions with Kevin, Loric, Damelon and even Berek! Plus the sandgorgons returned, then the story of Kastenessen took on much greater importance, the Elohim were back (I will likely never see the word surquedry again, but if I do, I will have a mental image of Infelice), the lurker, Brinn (sort of), Cail (sort of), the Earthblood, the forestals, the ur-viles and the waynhim, Mount Thunder, Elena. Thinking back on it, I am a little surprised I didn't see Vain in a few scenes.

I enjoyed the whole series, start to finish. It was better the second time through (the first three books anyway, only just finished my first reading of book four). The scene with Covenant, the lurker, turiya and the two Haruchai was maybe the best and most memorable, but there is a healthy competition there. I was fine with the ending, though I sort of felt Jeremiah had another construct in him, and why does moksha get away?

I loved Mahrtiir as a character, and his whole storyline. I loved all of the Insequent, though it felt a little unfair to feature them so prominently in this series when they were never mentioned previously. I mean, if there were ever a time for the Insequent to make an appearance, wouldn't it be during the quest for the One Tree?

And speaking of the One Tree, every time I see a tree decked out in solid light for Christmas from the base to the tip of every branch, I think back to the appearance of the One Tree as sunlight illuminated it. How can I not recommend such a series to other readers, even realizing many if not most will hate it?

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