Thursday, December 30, 2004

The Runes of the Earth

By Stephen Donaldson

Like I mentioned a couple of posts ago, the Thomas Covenant novels were my favorite series of books when I first read them years ago. Twenty years after the last one, he's started a new trilogy. I was initially skeptical, since I always got the impression that he wrote the second trilogy mainly because of fan pressure and worried that a third one might be even more unnecessary. But according to his statement on his website he conceived of the second and third chronicles together, and it's just taken him this long to decide he's become a good enough writer to finish the tale.

The new series starts ten years after the last series, and the protagonist is Covenant's sidekick from the second chronicles, Linden Avery. Once again she is summoned to the Land (a magical fantasy world), where several thousand years have passed since the last time she was there, and encounters Lord Foul, Donaldson's Sauron stand-in. This time Foul is working through Roger and Joan Covenant, Thomas' son and ex-wife. It's all somewhat complicated and twisted, but it's a good setup for a potent climax to the story. The first book just explains what's happened to the Land in the intervening time, and introduces all the main characters.

The book is no disappointment, although it will be hard to really judge it until the series is complete. It does seem obvious that he set it all up in the previous series, although he cleverly made it seem like there were no loose ends at the end of the second chronicles. Lord Foul's primary weapon has always been despair, and evoking despair has always been one of Donaldson's strengths as a writer. For the first six books, it almost always seemed like the heroes were truly fucked, and there was no way they could ever win. A real achievement when you know it's an epic fantasy story and the good guys have to win in the end anyway. In the first series he did this by making Covenant a real fucked up mess of a man, and when he sorted himself out at the end of the first series introduced Linden Avery, a real fucked up mess of a woman. Now both Covenant and Avery have saved the Land in the past, and defeated their personal demons in the process. They're confidant that they can do so again. As a result, The Runes of the Earth is vastly more upbeat than the previous books. I'm not sure if this is a mis-step on the authors part, a deliberate change of direction, or if he's deliberately lulling us into a false sense of comfort before really fucking things up. Based on the surprising twist at the end of the book, and the various ominous hints dropped along the way, I'd bet on the latter.

A note on titles, 'The Runes of the Earth' - mysterious and evocative, in a numinous sort of way. Not all that menacing. The next book is 'Fatal Revenant'. Sounds brutal. I'm looking forward to it!

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