by Stephen R. Donaldson
Review by Drew Bittner
Putnam Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780399154461
Date: 09 October 2007 List Price $27.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
In The Runes of the Earth, the first volume of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Dr. Linden Avery's adopted son Jeremiah has been kidnapped by Roger Covenant, the sinister son of her long-dead friend Thomas Covenant; Roger has also managed to kidnap his psychotic mother Joan. Linden pursues Roger and his victims into The Land, a fantastic place where Linden helped triumph over the powers of evil many years ago.
The Land is a mess. It's thousands of years after Linden's last visit and things have gone downhill--steeply downhill. The Haruchai who once served the Lords (scholars and defenders of The Land) are now the Masters, and forbid teaching any of the lore that the Lords knew; any use of Earthpower is considered dangerous and ruthlessly suppressed. A magical haze called Kevin's Dirt even steals the "health sense" that all natives of the Land once took for granted. Making things worse, Joan Covenant's white gold wedding ring is spewing out wild magic, creating caesures (temporal cyclones) that destroy everything in their path.
Finally, Lord Foul is making another bid to break the Arch of Time and escape imprisonment. With Jeremiah in his power, he may actually be able to do it this time.
Now, in Fatal Revenant, Stephen R. Donaldson kicks the story into high gear. Linden has recovered the Staff of Law she created at the end of the Second Chronicles, just in time for Covenant and Jeremiah to catch up with them at Revelstone (the ancient home of the Lords of the Land). But Covenant is not the way she remembers him; he is cold, even cruel, and commands her not to touch him or Jeremiah lest she break the fragile magic keeping them substantial and present to her.
They induce her to follow them on a dangerous expedition, where Linden gains some understanding at a terrible price--and conceives a terrible purpose. Although she encounters figures from the Land's ancient past and learns much about the Land's history, this knowledge does not answer her most urgent needs. Instead, she sets out to reach the Hills of Andelain, where she hopes to find her answers... as well as an object that will let her master two antithetical magics at once. But what will she do with that much power? Can her friends and allies trust her, or will her choices damn the Land once and for all?
Donaldson sets the stakes higher in this part of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a four-part series which closes the epic tale of The Land once and for all. Linden takes a dark turn, with heartbreak and anguish conspiring to break her will, not to mention the array of enemies and obstacles in her path. From an insane Elohim (something like an archangel) named Kastenessen to a treacherous ally named Esmer to the suspicion of the Masters to a murderous Giant to... well, the list goes on and on. Even with surprise help from ur-viles and Waynhim, Ranyhyn and Ramen, a renegade Master and more, Linden has far more enemies than allies this time around. And that isn't even mentioning the Insequent, a magical and enigmatic people who confound the Elohim and have their own designs on the Land.
Although Linden is the focal character, Roger Covenant, Esmer and the Insequent known as the Hallow are standouts in the supporting cast. Each opposes Linden's goals in their own way, for their own reasons, but they are not generic villains--each presents his own challenge to Linden, confronting her in different ways with her own doubts, fears and needs. They help establish the gray areas in which Linden must operate, where her knowledge is not equal to her power and her choices are therefore dangerous.
The supporting cast from Runes makes a strong showing as well, with Stave and Liand in particular transcending themselves. Stave, a renegade Master, begins to see where the inflexibility of his people has led them to make the same mistakes over and over again, while Liand, a once-ignorant Stonedownor, is on the path to becoming a Gravelingas, or master of the rhadhamaerl (stone lore) that is the heritage of his people. He may well redeem the people of The Land from the ignorance imposed by the Masters.
Another character, the Mahdoubt (seen briefly at the end of Runes) takes on a crucially important role as well, assisting Linden in an unexpected way. She may represent the unsought compassion of the Land's residents, a factor that has supported Covenant and Linden in times of their greatest need.
Donaldson uses the themes of sacrifice, self-doubt and unsuspected costs in new and different ways, keeping the reader off-balance. Linden acquires enormous power, but can she be trusted (even by herself) to choose what is best? Even those who know her best are not certain they can trust her, when she refuses to name her true purpose... and the choices she makes are likely to come as a great surprise.
The language used may daunt readers, in that Donaldson brings heavy-duty vocabulary into play here; the result is that some points of the story feel particularly opaque. This isn't a negative, but rather a characteristic of Donaldson's work (especially in writing Covenant). Anyone who can't ace the SAT after reading these books isn't trying hard enough.
Does it measure up to a trilogy that's become a fantasy landmark (no pun intended)? It sure does. Though not ideal for casual "skimmers" of fantasy, those who enjoy seeing issues of deep philosophy and complex themes of love and choice interwoven with magic and strange creatures will find much to love. Donaldson is at the peak of his powers as a writer and it is a joy to journey with him to The Land once more.
Visit the author's site at www.stephenrdonaldson.com.