Thomas Covenant The Unreadable


stephen donaldson against all things ending

This is going to be an unpleasant review to write. I have long counted Stephen Donaldson amongst my all time favorite authors having read the first six novels in his Thomas Covenant series as a youngster and fallen in love with them completely. The first and second chronicles are landmark achievements in fantasy literature. Unique in their inventiveness with utterly compelling characterization and a real flair for blow-your-mind type dramatic moments. Who will ever forget that first time Covenant says the word “Nom”? Who will ever forget Saltheart Foamfollower’s final moments? Bannor. Pitchwife. Honniscrave. Great, great characters. Great books. I’ve read and reread them over the years and my love and respect for the work remains as strong as ever.

That said, I find myself struggling with The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in the same way most of his characters often struggle with their emotions. It’s not easy reading because a precedent for excellence has been set and it’s very, very difficult to admit that these new books are not living up to it. In the case of the latest offering, Against All Things Ending, just recently published, there is no longer any way to deny the obvious. The Last Chronicles not only does not live up to it’s predecessors but it just plain bad writing.

It kills me to say it but the book is awful. Nearly unreadable.

There are a lot of reasons for this. First and foremost is the weak nature of the character of Linden Avery who is central to the story, obviously. To be honest, she has always been a weak, two dimensional character but, in the case of the Second Chronicles, it was easily covered up by the presence of Covenant and any number of fascinating secondary characters to support her and carry the story. Here, in these Last Chronicles, there are no other characters worthy of our attention and the action itself is rather poorly assembled and less than compelling which leaves a lot of the weight of the story on her very fragile shoulders. As she proclaims to herself over and over in the book, she’s just not up to it.

The constant angst, indecision, fretting and moaning and complete inability to act. The constant repetition of phrases and imagery that leads to little in the way of meaning or revelation. The character of Linden Avery and her overwhelming introspective, yet stagnant, emotiveness is like a monstrous dead weight that drags the work down and makes the experience of reading the novel almost painful.

That and the hideously slow pace Donaldson sets for the action have made for some of the more unpleasant reading you’re going to find out there. For example, the first 150 pages of the book take place in one spot with the characters basically standing around talking and fretting about what to do, embroiled in repetitively expressed thought and emotion. In fact, there is so much time wasted in the story with people debating what to do, while the World is ending mind you, the novel could easily be 300 pages shorter than what it is and not lose a single thing. I’m not exaggerating about this. I wonder if there was any editorial control exerted whatsoever at Putnam on this work. I really do. It’s so bloatedly over-indulgent.

The action does pick up at a certain point but, when it does, it seems like perfunctory action for the sake of it. I doesn’t advance the story that much and the graphic deaths of several main characters sort of lose their import as they happen all at once. Certain revelations seem rather contrived and one has to question the emphasis placed on some characters earlier in the series given the casual manner they are erased. None of it, to this point, seems to fit together very nicely and I find myself scratching my head a bit about the overall direction of the story.

Against All Things Ending is the third book in a series of four with the final novel, The Last Dark, set to conclude the Last Chronicles. I find myself wondering, in that case, if this current book was even necessary then and the entire series could have been shortened to a three novel arc like the previous Chronicles.

In the end, I have to ask the most horrible question of all. Was this a series simply written for the money, an effort by Donaldson and his publishers to cash in on a popular character and a series that has sold in the millions over the years when, as it seems, there really was no further story to tell? Should the end of White Gold Wielder have been the end, as was intended?

Perhaps Thomas Covenant should have stayed dead.


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6 Responses to “Thomas Covenant The Unreadable”

  1. Horatio Von Darkfaulker Says:

    This is sad news indeed. I have read The Runes of the Earth and Fatal Revenant, but have yet to peruse Against All Things Ending. Thus far, I have quite enjoyed Donaldson’s masterful implementation of the written word in Last Chronicles, (no one writes like this guy,) and I have appreciated his imaginative introduction of the powerful, structurally Lore-based race of Insequents as an equal and opposite counterbalance to nearly-omnipotent, fluidic and chaotic Elohim; I enjoyed the journey to Garroting Deep wherein Caerroil Wildwood implanted Runes of Lore on Avery’s new Staff of Law concerning laws of the Dead; and I found it of great interest Donaldson’s explanation of how Lord Foul corrupted the Viles by teaching them self-loathing, prompting them to spawn the Demondim, who, in turn, brought about the existence of the Urviles and Waynhim. Donaldson seems to lay down new answers and questions in equal measure; I have found the Last Chronicles engrossing, not as a story in-and-of-itself, but as a continuation of the original mythology; a connecting-of-the-dots pointing toward a powerful culmination. But, like any reader, I want answers, like: what is a Croyel, how powerful is the thing, and how can Avery release her son from its power? How does the Harrow hope to wrest the Ring and the Staff from Linden when he is oath-bound not to challenge Avery directly? When do I get to see a showdown between an Elohim and an Insequent? When will I finally get to see somebody kick Esmer’s treacherous ass? Can a Rhanhyn be house-broken and taught to use a toilet instead of a litter box? These are some of the answers I hope to glean from Against All Things Ending, but your account of the thing has made me wary; better to be ignorant of the book than to be disappointed by it… There is, however, one thing I am certain of: knowing that Covenant once again walks the Land he shall hold the key to putting everything right but he will agonizingly shirk any meaningful involvement. Donaldson is a Bastard like that. But he is a masterful one.

  2. Ken Socrates Says:

    Some of those questions are answered for you in AATE. Despite my obvious disappointments, I encourage you to read it if, like me, you’ve come this far with Donaldson and, like Covenant himself, you’re bloody-mindedly intent to see things through to the bitter end.

    The book gets better in it’s latter half but many of my aforementioned complaints still apply. I think a good editor would have this series whittled down to a tighter 3 books instead of 4 and might have saved the readers some wasted hours.

    How you doin’, by the way, Horatio? Long time no talk, brother. Hope all is well.

  3. Horatio Von Darkfaulker Says:

    Things are tolerably well with me, my friend. I’ve been working like hell and living by the seat of my pants, but I’m feeling productive and happy. And I hope all’s well with you in the bunker, man. We’ll have to get together soon on some conference-call mischief with the rascally OddBrian, (he pocket-dialed me the other day from a pub and I listened to a good 20 minutes of drunken revelry before he noticed someone was on the phone…of course, I had him on speaker for the rest of the Darkfaulker clan to appreciate his antics. Ha!)

    Also, I have been sensing an ominous flux emanating from the shadowy nether realms that occasionally infiltrate our reality; a swaddling restlessness regarding the Instrumentalities of Nocturnal Naughtiness I am sworn to stand athwart: It may be time for another Darkfaulker field report if you’re up for such a thing.

    Give me a shout-out when you get a chance buddy.

  4. Ken Socrates Says:

    Always eager to hear the latest adventures of HVD. Were you involved in that incident up north where that gang of evil Frost Giants manipulated the visual frequencies of the Northern Lights so they became suggestively hypnotic and the entire Inuit population of Canada suddenly took up arms and marched on downtown Winnipeg, killing hundreds and burning the city to the ground?

    I know the mainstream media was well paid off to keep the story quiet by my sources tell me that it was you, Wayne Gretzky, Nuk-Nuk The Legendary Eskimo Warrior God and a handful of Ice Elementals that saved the day.

  5. Horatio Von Darkfaulker Says:

    Indeed, Ken. Indeed. Your sources serve you well. My memories of the incident are at worst harrowing and at best hazy, but your recounting of the event has jarred loose from my tortured psyche a torrential reliving of the long nights I spent during this time; nights I spent stumbling on a drunken, bitterly-cold pilgrimage from igloo to igloo, seeking acceptance and trust within the Inuit community through a copious mastication of whale-blubber and a seemingly endless rubbing-of-noses with nose-rubbers, (“nasal prophylactics?” you might ask. But no, such matters were far more complicated…)

    At the time, I was on a quest within a quest, you see; a restless sojourn which ultimately led me seeking an eldritch cessation to the uncharacteristic, murderous Inuit aggression of which you speak. I cannot give a full account here, of course…let me just say, for the nonce, that were it not for Nuk-Nuk channeling His divine strength through the enchanted High Stick wielded by His chosen mortal avatar, Wayne Douglas Gretzky, I would not be living this day to tell the tale. But tell it I shall! As I recall, it all started while I was on a quest for the Giant Sky-Crab of legend:
    I went looking for dinner, but what I encountered was A FROZEN FEAST FROM HELL!
    I’ll get to work and shall render unto you an exclusive report, my friend. But warn your readers! My words are not for the timid! My words are only for the Bold; my words are for the Silly. And, most importantly, my words are for Those Who Have Nothing Better To Do!

    Seeya in the funny pages,


  6. Rotational moulding Technology student Says:

    Rotational moulding Technology student

    Thomas Covenant The Unreadable | Ken Socrates

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