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The Best of Stephen R. Donaldson
Stephen R. Donaldson, edited by Bill Sheehan
Subterranean Press, 440 pages

The Best of Stephen R. Donaldson
Stephen R. Donaldson
Stephen R. Donaldson is the best-selling author of many books including the series: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever, The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and Mordant's Need. He has received various awards, including the first prize of the British Science Fiction Society and the John W. Campbell Memorial Award.

Stephen R. Donaldson Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Mordant's Need
SF Site Review: Reave the Just and Other Tales

Past Feature Reviews
A review by D. Douglas Fratz

Stephen R. Donaldson is best known for his engaging high-fantasy novels in the Thomas Covenant series, which he began in the late 1970s and is still writing, as well as the dark science fiction novels in his The Gap Cycle. But he has also written shorter works over the years, most of which appeared in two collections, Daughter of Regals and Other Tales (1984) and Reave the Just and Other Tales (1999). While virtually all of the eleven stories in The Best of Stephen R. Donaldson (edited by Bill Sheehan) can be found in those previous collections, Donaldson's tales are eminently re-readable, and this volume is valuable even for those already familiar with these stories.

Donaldson specializes in placing protagonists that are damaged physically and/or mentally into intense situations where morality plays a key role. Thomas Covenant is a leper whose self-doubt and self-loathing make him a unique and unlikely anti-hero unlike most other protagonists in high fantasy fiction who must struggle with great moral issues. Donaldson's best short fiction follows the same structure, and it is a tribute to his immense storytelling skill that these protagonists are sympathetic and their morality tales compelling.

"Daughter of Regals" was his best early high-fantasy short fiction, set in a fantasy world ruled by strange dynasties of Regals who are part human and part archetypical fantasy beast. The eponymous protagonist in this dark fantasy world must use her natural wits and intelligence in the face of moral uncertainty to overcome her innate weaknesses. "Ser Visal's Tale" is set in an even darker fantasy world reminiscent of the Middle Ages during The Spanish Inquisition (but where magic in the form of witchcraft is indeed real) and also is a tale where weak and damaged protagonists must act on moral imperatives to survive. These stories were two of the best fantasy stories of the 1980s.

The stories included here from the 1990s show Donaldson at the peak of his storytelling skills. "Reave the Just" is a marvelous tale with a nice but ineffectual protagonist who must seek the help of the eponymous hero to overcome his dire straits. This is a wonderful story, but one that will never become a series, since once the reader learns the hero's modus operandi, further tales would be anticlimactic. The mentally challenged protagonist's story in "The Woman Who Loved Pigs" is another wonderful tale that elicits no potential sequels once the protagonist's true nature is revealed. "The Kings of Tarshish Shall Bring Gifts" uses a dark Middle Eastern historical fantasy setting for a similarly compelling story of redemption for its protagonist. "Penance" is a harrowing tale of self-loathing vampires set in an evil medieval theocracy similar to that in "Ser Visal's Tale." The final work in the volume, "The Killing Strike," is a quite compelling morality tale set in an oriental world during a war of mages, where the white and black mages seek to use masters in the five forms of the martial arts as pawns in their war.

There are also other stories of varying quality in this collection -- two of which are dark science fiction and one more traditional dark fantasy/horror -- but the seven tales noted above alone make this volume must reading for Donaldson fans, and for all fantasy fans who are ready to rise above thematically simplistic formulaic quest fantasies and experience what can be achieved in fantasy fiction.

The only things missing in this volume are the author's introductions -- or commentary by others -- that can provide critical context to the stories. While that lack is unfortunate, these stories speak for themselves quite nicely.

Copyright © 2012 D. Douglas Fratz

D. Douglas Fratz has more than forty years experience as editor and publisher of literary review magazines in the science fiction and fantasy field, and author of commentary and critiques on science fiction and fantasy literature and media.

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