The Runes of the Earth (review)

I’ve received a copy of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Against All Things Ending, the third book in his Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, with the understanding I will write a review of it. And so I will… except I hadn’t yet read the first two books in the series, so I need to read them too, and might as well review them while I’m at it…

[Cue harp glissandi and wavy image]

The year is 1977, and I’ve just gotten a book from the Science Fiction Book Club. Not intentionally. The book is Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the trilogy The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and it’s by some guy named Stephen R. Donaldson. I didn’t think it looked all that promising, but I hadn’t sent back the reply card telling them not to send it, so there it is. I figure I might as well read it.

At first it seems I was right: not a very good book. The setting (“The Land”) and its denizens are very imitative of Tolkien. The writing style is ponderous and slow-moving. The main character, Thomas Covenant, is whiny and unlikeable. Still, once I get started reading a book, it takes more than that to get me to stop. (Remind me to tell you about Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen and Stephen Baxter’s The Raft some day, though.) As I continue reading, I find myself getting sucked in, and by the time I finish I decide it was a pretty good book, good enough that I opt to buy the second volume, The Illearth War. Which I like better. So I get the third book, The Power That Preserves, and enjoy that even more; the trilogy as a whole seems to me a brilliant piece of work, worthy of mention in the same breath with The Lord of the Rings. Yes, the Land is derivative; yes, the writing is thick enough to cut with a knife. But that third “flaw” is really the key to the trilogy’s impact. The story ultimately is about Covenant’s overcoming his deep psychological scars and what he learns in the process. The unlikeable character he started as became someone I was cheering on by the end.

(No, really. I’ve encountered many readers who’ve complained about the Covenant character, saying he was a whiny self-absorbed loser at the beginning and was still a whiny self-absorbed loser at the end, and I’m perplexed as to which alternate universe their copy of the trilogy was published in. In the books I read, the change Covenant goes through is profound.)

So yeah, I was impressed. I was less impressed by the sequel trilogy (the Second Chronicles) but liked it well enough. I was thoroughly disturbed by Donaldson’s Mordant’s Need duology, but thought it was very good, and I found his Gap series decidedly strange but compelling. Donaldson is in a sense a one trick pony: All his novels are about characters who overcome deep psychological scars and what they learn in the process. But he rings interesting changes on the theme; it’s not like he’s writing the same books over and over.

(I’ve liked pretty much everything of Donaldson’s I’ve read — but as far as I can recall I’ve never reread any of his books. Not sure why.)

Now forward (more harp) to 2004, and The Runes of the Earth. It’s seldom a good sign when mature authors write sequels to the books that made them famous decades before. Asimov didn’t do himself a lot of favors with his late Foundation books, for instance. They read like they were inspired by alimony payments. So as much as I’ve liked Donaldson, I didn’t leap at this new series.

But as I said, I’m sort of contractually obligated now, so I’m catching up.

Having said all that, I’m less than sure what to say about the book. I don’t like reviews that give much in the way of plot synopsis; I’m highly spoiler-averse. And really there’s not that much plot here, the thickness of the volume notwithstanding. Donaldson tends to spend less of his prose on what’s going on and more on what his characters think and feel about what’s going on.

But to sketch a bit of it anyway, the main character is Linden Avery, and the time is ten years after the Second Chronicles. Thomas Covenant’s name appears in the title of the series, and he sort of appears in this book, sort of, briefly, but Linden is the central character. After an unpleasant run-in with Thomas Covenant’s now-adult son, she finds herself brought back to the Land.

What’s happening there is pretty dire. Lord Foul is resurgent. There’s something interfering with health-sense, there are localized storms of chaos, there are huge wolves hunting people down, the Staff of Law is missing — and then there are the haruchai, who for their own reasons have decided to prevent Earthpower from being used for ill by preventing it being used at all, starting by keeping the rest of the people in the Land from ever learning about it, or about much of anything in the Land’s past. Linden as a walking embodiment of the past then poses something of a threat to their policy. She doesn’t much care what the haruchai think of her, though: she’s concerned only with one thing, her adopted son, Jeremiah, who has been kidnapped by Foul’s forces.

There follows, as I said, a lot of pages but not so many events. As the first book in a tetralogy, it serves mainly to set things up for the subsequent volumes, I suppose; certainly there’s not much of any resolution to be found here. As such it’s difficult to comment upon how well the author succeeds in what he’s doing, other than in his characterization. Which is fine — by the nature of the Land’s accelerated time-rate, Donaldson of necessity must introduce a whole new cast of characters other than Linden, and nearly all of them are complex, well-drawn, and convincing.

To the extent that I can remember the preceding trilogies — I remind you, I read them only once, soon after their publication — The Runes of the Earth does resemble them, such that those who liked or disliked the earlier books will probably like or dislike, respectively, this one. In particular the prose style is about as heavy as ever (though to my relief he uses the word ‘inchoate’ only about half a dozen times, if that. I remember getting irritated at Donaldson’s overuse of the word in the Second Chronicles.) By the time I get through Fatal Revenant, the second book, I figure I’ll have a better sense of how well I like or don’t like what he’s doing. Certainly it doesn’t seem to be the quick-buck hack job I was afraid it might be. It might even be a truly worthy successor to the first trilogy. We’ll see.


3 thoughts on “The Runes of the Earth (review)

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