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The Runes of the Earth: The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Book One
Stephen R. Donaldson
Putnam, 534 pages

The Runes of the Earth
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.

ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Mordant's Need
SF Site Review: Reave the Just and Other Tales

Past Feature Reviews
A review by William Thompson

It has been nearly thirty years since Stephen Donaldson published his first novel, Lord Foul's Bane, the start of twin trilogies collectively known as The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Immediately recognized as the most important and original work of epic fantasy after Tolkien, it intentionally parodied the themes and archetypes established in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, subverting these motifs to address the sources and nature of despair that in part informed his consolatory fiction. The series also represented a repudiation of much of the Christian values and romance underlying Tolkien's writing, abetted by the use of a central character that actively undermined the ideals of heroism found in his novels, as well as most subsequent and imitative high fantasy. Instead, Donaldson directed his epic towards addressing more contemporary and existential questions, as well as modern topical issues, such as the emerging environmental ethos, in many respects foreshadowing the philosophy of groups such as Earth First and ELF. And in his repudiation of the legacy of Tolkien and the inherited conventions of high fantasy, as well as his adaptation of fantasy to address and mirror contemporary experience, Donaldson continued a more modern tradition of anti-romanticism initially established by authors such as Fritz Leiber, Mervyn Peake and Michael Moorcock, and which continues to find expression today, most popularly, in the writings of George R.R. Martin, China Miéville, Steven Erikson and R. Scott Bakker. In this respect, and more prominently than most, Stephen R. Donaldson represents one of the dual poles that define and divide contemporary fantasy fiction between romance and realism (not necessarily, within the context of fantasy, an oxymoron).

Since the late 80s, Donaldson has largely been absent from the fantasy field, writing science fiction (The Gap) and more recently mysteries (The Man Who series). Yet, rightly or wrongly, the author remains most clearly identified in the public mind with Thomas Covenant, and it can be anticipated that the return -- a quartet -- despite any promotional hyperbole, will be greatly anticipated, as well as a guarantor of bestseller status. But the long absence, unfortunately, poses problems. A generation has passed, many of whom, sadly, by my own tally, have never read the original series; hopefully the publication of Runes will change this. However, the more immediate impact is experienced in the book's opening. As with the original series, Donaldson is forced, I suspect, to again rely upon starting his story in the present and contemporary world of Linden Avery, the heroine introduced in The Second Chronicles, in order to recreate compositional verisimilitude with his earlier work, as well as establish the necessary foundation and setup for this latest foray. Background for the earlier novels is revisited, and the reader is brought up to date. However, this requires over a hundred pages of exegesis, which some are bound to find tedious and slow-slogging, as well as reliance upon a device that over time became repetitive and distracting in the original novels. The good news is that if the reader is willing to persist, once the characters make the transition to The Land, the narrative quickens and attains a more assured and sustained focus. And there is indication that the author intends to shed this artifice in subsequent novels.

Ten years have passed since Linden Avery helped Thomas Covenant defeat The Despiser in the parallel and magical realm of The Land, a victory that led to Covenant's death and Avery's return to her own world. Since then, Linden has lead a life of quiet despair, alleviated only by her memories of Covenant and The Land, and the love she has for her adopted son, Jeremiah, the maimed and autistic child who played a peripheral role in The Second Chronicles. Now head of the local mental institution she helped to create, her most prominent patient is Covenant's former wife, Joan, who remains permanently and mentally scarred from events in the previous series. Unexpectedly, Covenant's son, Roger, appears, seeking custody of his mother as well as his father's white gold wedding band. The source of Covenant's power in The Land, and given to Linden at his death, she has kept it in memory of her love for him. Roger's motivations quickly become suspect, and Linden refuses both requests. Her distrust is later proved well-founded, as Roger forcibly abducts both his mother and Jeremiah, returning to the woodland site where Covenant sacrificed his life for Joan's in the earlier series. A confrontation ensues, in which all four characters are translated to The Land.

As with the earlier series, the passage of time in The Land has been more accelerated. A decade has passed in Linden's own world, whereas 3,500 years have elapsed in The Land. Thus Linden finds she is in an alternate world at once familiar and irrevocably altered. Like Covenant before her, she arrives at Kevin's Watch, to be met by a guide. But unlike her own or Covenant's past experience, her guide is mad and there is a wrongness to The Land, immediately underscored by the destruction of Kevin's Watch by an animate aura, or caesure, which is later revealed as a rift in time. Linden soon discovers that the world she thought she and Covenant had saved has instead vanished or been utterly changed: all knowledge of earth lore has been lost, along with The Land's history. The Haruchai, once The Land's defenders, have now become its Masters, intentionally keeping its people ignorant of their past as well as the magic that once sustained it. The incipient health of The Land, once discernable to all, is gone, and in its stead Linden can only sense its absence, suspecting the influence of Lord Foul. And she arrives alone, without Jeremiah, Joan or Roger, who she is certain now serves The Despiser.

Linden will learn that the Staff of Law, which she left in the care of Sunder and Hollian at the conclusion of The Second Chronicles, was later lost by their son. Its loss has contributed to the degradation of The Land and the changes she discovers, though there is evidence it may still exist, hidden somewhere. This is her only hope, for past events have also altered the Law of Time, the prison which confines Lord Foul, whose abrogation and presence can be discerned in the caesures which currently roam and menace the countryside. Thus Linden begins a long and arduous search for both her son and the Staff, aided as well as opposed by likely and unlikely foes and allies, including the Ramen and Ranyhyn, the Demondim and their spawn, and the mysterious, possibly deranged and near omnipotent character Esmer, son of Cail and the Dancers of the Sea, as well as, regardless of his father, the implacable enemy of the Haruchai.

Once into the heart of his story, Donaldson displays all the narrative vigor and imaginative world-building that distinguished his earlier books. Rich in paradox, metaphor and symbolism, Donaldson continues his explorations into the psyches of his characters, as well as themes of estrangement, despair, guilt and responsibility. Intricately plotted, one suspects this first novel is but a bridging between the past series and what is to come, and the ending contains revelations certain to titillate anticipation for more, especially among readers of the earlier Chronicles.

Elsewhere it has been suggested that this work can stand alone, isolated from the previous novels. Donaldson certainly expends a great amount of time and energy attempting to provide translation at the start, perhaps in part for a new audience. But by his own admission in interviews, it is apparent that this series and the new work are meant to represent a whole. How or whether the author will expand upon his earlier themes, or take them into new directions, remains to be seen. But there is little question, once past the obligatory if lengthy introduction, this is an excellent launch. And Donaldson's writing remains one of the most original and intellectually challenging works to have graced contemporary epic fantasy.

Copyright © 2004 William Thompson

In addition to the SF Site, William Thompson's reviews have appeared in Interzone, Revolution Science Fiction and Locus Online. He also has worked as a freelance editor for PS Publishing, editing The Healthy Dead and Grandma Matchie, by Steven Erikson, and Night of Knives, by Cameron Esslemont. He lives in Mesilla, New Mexico.

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