The Last Dark (Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant)
by Stephen R. Donaldson
Review by Drew Bittner
Putnam Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780399159206
Date: 15 October 2013 List Price $35.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Author's Website / Interview with Stephen R. Donaldson / Show Official Info /
In The Last Dark, all the cards are finally on the table. Thomas Covenant has confronted his mad wife, Joan, and ended a threat to the Land, only to discover that the catastrophic Worm of the World's End has been roused; it has eaten the sun itself and now is whetting its appetite by consuming sources of Earthpower. Unless it can be stopped, the Land will die in mere days and the Arch of Time will be broken, allowing Lord Foul to escape his ancient prison.
To slow the Worm, Covenant must make a deal with a powerful, terrible entity to buy the Land time. He bargains with a handful of creatures who bear fragments of the Illearth Stone for help, leading to an uncanny battle between monsters that he only narrowly escapes.
Meanwhile, Linden Avery is confronting her own challenges. Her son Jeremiah managed to drive off the angel-like Elohim named Infelice and free himself from the snare of his own autistic mind. Now, with the Haruchai Stave and a handful of Giants, Linden must find a way to answer the Land's need. With word passed to her from Covenant, she undertakes a desperately dangerous quest to rediscover knowledge lost long ago, in company with the blinded Manethrall Mahrtiir; this leads to a very unexpected encounter and the answer to a question posed to her ages past.
Jeremiah, left with their remaining allies, contrives to protect a rich source of Earthpower from the Worm's appetite. His goal is straightforward but it nearly costs the lives of two valued comrades and exhausts the remainder. Even then, his work is threatened by the appearance of the mad Elohim Kastenessen, who desires nothing but destruction.
Each quest is fraught with horrible dangers and each incurs grievous losses, yet the survivors have no time to rest--even though an unexpected return (and an offer) proves worthy of celebration. Their ultimate goal must be Mount Thunder, where Lord Foul exerts his final bit of malice against the Land and three final efforts must be undertaken.
In spite of ongoing assaults by the terrible Sandgorgons (spurred to hate the heroes by the shards of a Raver's mind divided amongst them) and the fire-born skurj, as well as the misgivings of the Elohim, the heroes nevertheless persevere. Jeremiah starts to learn the secrets of a talisman, thereby answering his own anguish and inability, while Covenant comes to terms with all that he has sacrificed, amid the leper's numbness that keeps him from feeling too much or too deeply. Linden also faces her worst fears, leading her to a confrontation deep under a mountain against a threat she only narrowly survived the last time.
It will all come down to a final confrontation between Thomas Covenant and Lord Foul, with neither side holding back as the world crumbles around them. It is an epic battle, to be sure, and one readers have waited thirty-five years to witness.
The characters' arcs are sharply drawn, with Covenant, Linden, and Jeremiah all facing the personal horror of inadequacy in their own ways. Covenant has come to appreciate what "being the wild gold" and a rightful wielder of that power really means, as does Linden. Jeremiah struggles, having lost years in which he would have matured; he has some of the capacities of a teen but not all of them, having suffered mental dissociation for much of his life. Now he is faced with the need of the Land--and he fears he will fail.
Their trek is hardly all inward, however, as they master traveling via rents in time and space created by wild magic and find themselves battling the vast forces summoned up by Foul, commanded by his last surviving Raver and by Covenant's own deranged son Roger. There is much fighting to be done and many losses to take, even as the Masters of Revelstone demand a final accounting and the Worm makes its way to the ultimate source of Earthpower: the font of EarthBlood beneath the mountains of Melenkurion Skyweir. Once that happens, all bets are off--but even so, Covenant has a plan....
This is the crowning achievement of Donaldson's long, distinguished career as an author, and perhaps the one that most truly affirms his rightful place among the giants of the genre. His story was remarkable in that it was almost anti-Tolkien in nature, presenting an anti-hero as protagonist--a deeply flawed and horribly wounded man whose emotional scars were matched by his body's leprosy--in a land notably devoid of conventional fantasy races and trappings. Good and evil were subsumed into health and disease, sanity and despair, and other uncommon dichotomies, with Covenant naming himself "Unbeliever" and refusing to help the Land until it was nearly too late.
Then, in The Second Chronicles, the introduction of Linden Avery sent the story into new territory, setting up what came to pass in The Last Chronicles. The story has evolved from an epic fantasy to become a meditation on love, parenthood, responsibility to oneself versus the world, and so much more. Donaldson's work is philosophically as rich as his use of language, creating entire vocabularies to meld the internal conflicts with the external.
This novel is a masterpiece.
On a personal note, after reading Lord Foul's Bane in high school (when it was first published), it is a bittersweet pleasure to review this work and thus end my journey with Thomas Covenant in the Land. As one who loves fantasy, there are only a tiny handful of novels like this, that end so well or deliver such grace to their characters.
The very highest recommendation.