Here it is–probably the first thing I’ve done that I would actually call a “book review”; it’s a little rambling and unstructured, and I think it probably doesn’t quite give the impression of the book I intended, but it’s a start, I guess.
Already a long fan of Stephen R Donaldson’s work, when he brought out his 2004 book The Runes of the Earth, the first of a four-book series that would conclude the story he had begun 30 years ago in The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever and continued in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, I was, understandably, a little excited. I mean, this wasn’t just the Donaldson who had given me Thomas Covenant: this was also the Donaldson who had stunned me with his brilliant sci-fi series The Gap Cycle, a series which had surpassed all my expectations. How much would Donaldson, whose work had only seemed to improve over the years, accomplish with this return to his most well-known characters and settings?
The result was never quite going to meet my expectations. In the end, The Runes of the Earth had everything you might want in a novel of this series, but something was still missing. Somehow, the novel felt flat: it lacked the emotional intensity that the Second Chronicles and the Gap had taught me to expect from Donaldson. I had to wonder if the author had lost something in the years since.
In October this year came the test of that theory, in the form of Fatal Revenant, book two of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The story of Fatal Revenant begins exactly where Runes left off: Linden Avery stands upon a balcony in Revelstone’s watch tower, watching in shock as the Haruchai escort toward the keep two strangers who appear to be her son Jeremiah–unmistakeably responsive, after ten years of being anything but–and her dead lover, Thomas Covenant himself. Those who hoped to see Thomas Covenant’s PoV return will be left hoping, however–Fatal Revenant is still very much Linden’s story, and there is more to the appearance of these characters than there seems.
In fact, Donaldson goes to great pains to ensure that the reader cannot fail to think there is something very wrong with Thomas Covenant, as he proceeds to steal Linden away from her allies and friends to lead her on dangerous quest of highly dubious motive. Linden’s characteristic self-doubt, and her desperate need to believe that her son is safe and whole, is enough at first to justify her giving them the benefit of the doubt, but as the story moves on, and the explanations given by Covenant and Jeremiah become less and less credible, you can’t help but begin to wonder if Linden is suffering under some kind of selective memory as she continually fails to notice the most obvious of clues. This was to turn out to be the major flaw in Donaldson’s novel: too much of what occured over the course of this story seemed based not upon the characters’ needs and the knowledge available to them, but upon what the author needed to happen. In this case, Linden’s inability to form any concrete doubts about her companions leads her to a climactic confrontation under the mountain Melenkurion Skyweir during the Land’s deep past, and despite a somewhat unsubtle manipulation of events by the author, at this point it is easy to forgive Donaldson for being a little contrived, as this climax and the events that lead up to it are a high point of the novel, and conclude a very satisfying Part I.
Indeed, taken on its own Part I of Fatal Revenant is a terrific return to form for Donaldson, restoring some of the elements missing from Runes while still remaining true, for the most part, to Linden Avery’s character. The story deliberately revisits places, events, and stories from previous novels, but twists them into a new shape: Part I itself is a distorted reflection of Thomas Covenant’s journey in The Illearth War, and ends in a similar fashion. The appearances of characters from the Land’s deep past coulsd easily have come across as unnecessary to the plot, but instead that section of the book gave an interesting new perspective on those events, bringing them to life in a way that rang more true than the legends passed down in the First Chronicles.
Not that Donaldson’s revisiting of the past doesn’t bring its own problems–when there is time travel in a story, it is difficult to avoid stepping on previously established continuity to get where you are going. In Fatal Revenant, these problems are brought forward in the form of the Insequent, a race first encountered in Part I, but brought into the forefront in Part II, where their history and nature is revealed. The Insequent are a race of mysterious and powerful beings, who spend almost all of their lives in the solitary pursuit of magical knowledge. The stickler is this: not only are these beings said to have existed for many thousands of years, but they were known of by other characters, and had played significant roles in the Land’s history. In introducing them at such a late stage in the story, Donaldson is rewriting a large portion of the reader’s established knowledge of the series, and in a way that seems to directly contradict evidence in his older works.
It is these revelations that comprise the most part of the early chapters of Part II, and it is perhaps because he begins the second stage of his story by straining the reader’s suspension of disbelief that the events of the second half seem more open to scrutiny. For the next leg of her journey, Linden, after being reunited with her companions in her present time, leaves the safety of Revelstone to head toward Andelain, where she hopes to find her dead, and an artifact that will enable her to use the power of both her Staff and the White Gold together. Hounding her at various times during this journey, however, are the forces of her enemies, along with other figures of questionable motives. In an echo of the “Battle of Soaring Woodhelven” from Lord Foul’s Bane, things come to a head early in the journey when all sides converge at once upon Linden and her party, and a complicated struggle ensues. With a massive magical struggle between several groups at cross-purposes, a physical battle occuring alongside it, accompanying expository dialogue and at least one dramatic revelation, this is one of the largest action sequences in the series to date, and that itself becomes a problem: there is just too much going on. In the chapter leading up to this, the dramatic tension had built up gradually, and seemed to be culminating in a struggle between two of Linden’s enemies, herself left as a bystander. The appearance of a third enemy was a surprise, but still interesting–but as more and more things happened, the battle moved out of “exciting” and began to border on the ridiculous. I can’t help but feel he might have established some of the things revealed here at another part of the story–in particular one new problem revealed that had no part at all to play within the pages of Fatal Revenant.
Beyond a few continuitiy problems and the handling of exposition, however, there is little else to criticise. The rest of Part II, though shadowed by the early problems, runs along pretty smoothly, with some interesting twists and some thrilling sections where Linden has her first encounters with the skurj. The book ends on yet another cliffhanger, not as surprising as that in Runes, but equally tantalising; it’s a shame that we’ll have to wait another three years to see the story’s continuation.
The Runes of the Earth was the introductory novel, one that showed us the stakes but left us with no idea of how the many threats would be confronted. In Fatal Revenant the real story has well and truly begun, but we are also given yet more introduction to yet more problems, and the book leaves you with far more qustions than answers. Donaldson’s not quite at his best, with events failing to flow quite as naturally or seamlessly as they should have, but when its working, Fatal Revenant is a step up from the somewhat lacklustre Runes of the Earth. Here’s hoping the author can iron out a few of those problems while working on book three of the series, Against All Things Ending.