Fantasy is a literary genre solely for geeks and nerds, right? After all, its stock ingredients – muscular, sword-wielding Conan types, scantily-clad axemaidens and villainous beasties – are just easy-on-the-eye escapist fodder for the sociopathic teenagers of this world, aren’t they? Even when the genre transcends its own clichéd boundaries and becomes a mainstream phenomenon (hello, Professor Tolkien!), it’s usually dismissed as not being ‘serious’ writing.
Stephen R Donaldson takes all that insular snobbery and throws it out of the window. These books are unique, in the only sense of the word.
Runes Of The Earth is – depending on your point of view – the first in the final four-volume Chronicles series, or the seventh of the 10 books included in the three Chronicles. It’s been an epic journey, so I’ll bullet-point it for you…
The First Chronicles appeared in 1979 and followed Thomas Covenant – a bitter, angry fellow from small-town America who has been infected by leprosy and abandoned by family and community as a result – who finds himself magically transported to a place called the Land. There, his white gold wedding ring is revealed to be a power that can destroy or save the whole of reality. A beautiful world where the health of the very soil and grass is acutely perceptible, the Land provides Covenant with a temporary respite from his leprosy and drives him half-mad as a result: he rapes a young woman who tries to help him. His deep regrets after this shameful act don’t make it any easier for the reader to identify with him: from this point on, Donaldson has to convince us that Covenant’s tale is one worth following. Luckily, it’s a remarkable story, with Covenant ending up at the end of the third book in mortal combat with the Land’s nemesis, Lord Foul, and achieving a measure of peace as a result when he returns to our world.
The Second Chronicles arrived in the early 1980s. Covenant is rediscovered after a ten-year period. A doctor in his town, Linden Avery – a woman with dark secrets in her past – is swept along in subsequent events. Lord Foul has regained power in the Land and summons both mortals to wage war against him. The decade in our world equates to 3,500 years in the Land, and in that period Foul has warped the natural laws of nature to create the Sunbane, an affliction of the sun which keeps the Land in terrible misery. Aided by Giants, the mystical Elohim and creatures such as the ferocious Sandgorgon, Covenant and Avery defeat Foul once more, falling in love along the way. Oh, and Covenant dies, too.
Which brings us to the present day. A huge fanbase exists for these books, with the www.kevinswatch.com fansite the best starting point for anyone interested in exploring further. When news broke of the forthcoming third (‘Last’) Chronicles – scheduled to arrive in 2004 with Runes, then more books in 2007, 2010 and 2013 – many Covenant followers were ecstatic, but nervous. How could author Donaldson, a man who has spent the last 20 years writing excellent, non-Covenant fantasy, possibly follow the first six books?
Well, I’m as guilty as the next Covenant freak of regressing to juvenile fanboy status when discussing these amazing, amazing books, and devoured Runes in a matter of days (after re-reading the original six volumes first in preparation). The following text will require some familiarity with the previous book, I’m afraid: if you’re a newbie (or if you don’t want to know what happens!) skip to the paragraph beginning “The verdict?” now!
The author hasn’t been idle in the last few years. Donaldson spends quite a while developing the back story of Linden Avery (who is now the lead character) – she’s adopted a son, become the boss of a mental hospital and attempted to live her life after Covenant’s death. To me, these scenes are both overlong and unsophisticated: Covenant’s long-lost son Roger also appears, possessed by the spirit of Lord Foul (yep – he’s back).
After some surprisingly graphic, and ill-fitting, scenes of murder and kidnap (Donaldson had always avoided such clichés with ease in previous works), Linden is back in the Land. This is a relief, but the initial pleasure of being back in that environment, with all the vast possibilities it offers in terms of action and characterisation, doesn’t last long. For quite a while, it’s actually boring. The überwarriors Haruchai are still there, but muted into a more static, less impressive form; Linden’s companions Anele and Liand are astonishingly mundane (whither the determination of Atiaran and the humour of Foamfollower now?) and even Lord Foul is happy to stop for a pleasant chat here and there. Perhaps the fault lies with Linden, whose constant agonising about every decision she makes becomes rapidly wearing. Either way, the book drags for quite a while.
Fortunately – I had begun to dread another eight years of inferior sequels – it improves from there. Esmer, a character who is – genius! – the son of Cail and the merewives, improves the action no end. The Ramen and Ranyhyn return, and they’re welcome. Stave, the new book’s equivalent of Bannor and Brinn, is a well-drawn warrior figure. And the second half of the book. which includes time travel (yes, really), a trip to Revelstone (still as lovely as ever) and a look into the family history of the Waynhim and the ur-viles, is so superior to the first that it might as well be a different book. The ending is a ridiculous cliffhanger, though, and one I won’t reveal here because you won’t believe it until you read it.
The verdict? A shaky start, which filled me with ‘jilted fanboy’ dread, soon relieved by a storming second half which is Donaldson at his peak. If he brings back the Giants in book two, the Sandgorgons in book three, and the Fire-Lions, Amok, the ghosts of Foamfollower, Kasreyn and Mhoram and the fat trucker with one arm in book four, I can die happy.