Donaldson, Stephen

About the Author:

 

Stephen Donaldson was born in 1947 in Cleveland, Ohio, USA.  He lived in India between the ages of 3 and 16, where his father worked with lepers.  He now lives in New Mexico.

 

AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:

3 out of 5

(2 books)

Lord Foul's Bane

The first book of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.  The man in question is a leper who finds himself summoned into the fantasty realm of the Land.  Here Covenant is heralded as the reincarnation of an ancient hero and is faced with a difficult choice; reject his power and responsibility and hopefully survive to return to the 'real' world or embrace the Land and its people and, in doing so, abandon his sanity. 

I wasn't hugely impressed by the whole idea of a man taken from our world into a fantasy one and the suggestion at the end that it could all have been a dream was another nail in the coffin.  Also, the plot of the book is basically that Covenant has to walk across the Land, deliver a message and then join an impossible quest.  Also not very inspiring.  Then there's the dialogue which is largely irrelevant and at times completely impenetrable. 

Ultimately, the book's biggest let down is Covenant himself.  For a protagonist to really work in a story you have to either like them or empathise with them and it's almost impossible to do either with Covenant.  He begins by raping the girl who was his guide and goes on to insult and argue with every other character he meets, regardless of how they treat him.  Rather than exploring the psychological and philosophical ramifications of leprosy, Donaldson just has Covenant use it as an excuse to be a horrible person. 

What should be noted in the book's defence is that the author does a fantastic job of bring the Land to life in his writing.  Donaldson's wordplay conjured up vivid images in my mind of forbidding mountains, sweeping planes and ancient woodlands.  It is the quality of the author's descriptive ability which has led me to give the book three out of five (instead of two).

3 out of 5

 

The Illearth War

Book two of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever.  Being knocked unconscious in his home, Thomas Covenant awakes to find he has once again been summoned to the Land, where forty years have passed since his last appearance.  As the cataclysmic war against Lord Foul begins, Covenant and High Lord Elena set off in search of a long-hidden source of power.  Meanwhile a man named Hile Troy, also called to the Land from Covenant's world, leads a desperate military campaign against Foul's innumerable forces.

The biggest failing of the first book of the series, and why it's taken me several years to try reading book two, was that Thomas Covenant is a completely unlikable character.  Selfish, irrational and generally mean-spirited, he's entirely impossible to truly empathise with, using his leprosy as a cover-all excuse for being a horrible person.  Here Donaldson addresses this problem in two ways, the first of which is to have Covenant actually recognise, admit to and attempt contrition for being a horrible person.  The second way is far more successful because the author dedicates the vast majority of the book to Hile Troy's story, with Covenant's merely bookending it.  Setting aside the fact that Hile Troy is a weird name for someone supposedly from the 'real' world, he's a much more engaging character and his desperate but dogged attempts to counter the overwhelming armies of Lord Foul make for really compelling reading.  Were this the climax of the book, it would've warranted four out of five, but unfortunately Donaldson ends the book by returning us to the activities of Covenant.

As I've said, the author does try to make Covenant a more sympathetic character to begin with, but those efforts are completely derailed in the last hundred pages or so of the book.  Weirdly, the fact that Elena is Covenant's daughter isn't addressed through almost the entirety of the book and only comes into play when Covenant finds himself faced with a decision which would finally damn him.  As it unfolds, we're supposed to be onboard with the idea that he's changed and become more heroic when he has an epiphany that makes him decide not to have sex with his own daughter, even though she's throwing herself at him.  Bravo, Thomas; you're a real hero.  And even if this weird 'see he's not all bad because he doesn't shag his daughter' scene had achieved any redemption for the character, it is almost immediately undone when he makes a conscious decision to go back to being a selfish bastard.

Donaldson writes very compellingly and evocatively and the vast majority of this book was really enjoyable.  Unfortunately the author begins and ends with a character so awful that it leaves you feeling deeply unsatisfied in a way that does an injustice to just how good the middle section was.

3 out of 5

Collaborations & Anthologies:

The Wizards Of Odd (here)

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Fantasy (here)