This was a hard review for me to write, and I put it off several times. Okay, more than several.
As a teenager, the Chronicles of Thomas Convenant ranked high on my list of favourite fantasy. I read both trilogies at least a dozen times between the last couple of years of grade school and the end of high school. I expected to love a return visit to the world and have the first book drag me into the second.
Expectations subverted, and not in a good way.
As an adult, the character of Thomas Covenant annoys the hell out of me. He’s pretty much as unlikeable as Mr. Donaldson could make him without him actively being the bad guy in the story. And I understand that was the idea, that this is, in part, a story of attempted redemption, or the first step in it, at least. It just doesn’t work for me anymore.
Covenant is a jerk, an obnoxious prick, an asshole. Yes, he’s gotten the proverbial red hot poker up the backside between a disease that can’t be cured (leprosy) and how he’s treated by the world, and especially his now ex-wife, after the diagnosis, and after a few months/years of misery is thrown into a bizarre fantasy world without any real warning he can understand. So yes, his life sucks pretty large so far, but I’m a firm believer that while you can’t choose what the universe throws at you, you can certainly choose how you react to it.
And he reacts badly.
I’m not saying I’d react better. Except I would. I think most people would. Practically everyone.
Starting with being a societal outcast and then being dragged from the real world into something that only makes sense as a dream or hallucination gives you a certain amount of leeway, but Covenant starts off by being rude to everyone he meets, giving himself the title of Unbeliever, not even attempting to understand his situation and, when he realizes (or seems to) that he’s been healed of his disease, responds by raping the girl (she’s a teenager, not an adult, which is a distinction that needs to be made, I think) who basically rescued him.
Yes, rape is the absolute correct word and I don’t know why I don’t remember understanding that when I was a teenager and loved this book. She found him in the wilderness, helped him down a dangerous path to her village, and convinced her parents to take him in. And so he rewards her.
Had I been reading a paper copy, I might have thrown it across the room the moment I understood what was going on. Fortunately for my long-suffering tablet, I have more self-control.
Covenant continues to be an obstinate jerk as his victim’s mother (at first not knowing what happened to her daughter) leads him on a journey of several weeks walking across The Land. After various misadventures, she abandons him to the character I remember loving most in this book and who still does well for me, the giant Saltheart Foamfollower. And Foamfollower isn’t enough to keep me going. None of the other characters are, even the ones I remember loving and cheering for as a teenager, because it all comes back to Thomas Covenant.
Covenant pends almost the entire book embedded in a stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality, events, or his own feelings. Nothing around him is worth his real attention or understanding. When he occasionally loses control of his emotions and reacts, he’s always upset with himself and does everything he can to push people away before, during, and after. His actions seem calculated to cause maximum irritation in the people around him, as much because he doesn’t believe them to be real as because he doesn’t care about anything beyond himself.
Given his “real world” situation, stubborn self-centeredness is probably the only thing that keeps him alive long term, but by half way through the book, it’s old and the refusal of the character to grow or even open his eyes for more than a fraction of a second is, frankly, annoying.
But it continues for a lot of pages yet. It’s actually only near the end of the book that Covenant finally starts to actually care about the events around him, not that he really becomes much less of a passenger in the story, and that’s mostly accidental.
The good guys win, more or less, at least the ones who survive, and the bad guy is defeated. Well, not the big bad guy, but the bad guy being manipulated by the big bad guy. More of a marginally competent sidekick given too much power and magic so the big bad can laugh while he watches what happens.
Covenant, of course, wakes up in the real world, having not been run over by the car from the opening act, or at least not injured by it, and we flavour the last sequence just a little with the it-was-only-a-dream cliché even while knowing it wasn’t.
Overall rating: 2 stars. Meh. And that’s purely on the strength of the writing. With apologies to something that’s supposed to be a modern classic of the Fantasy genre, I actually wish I hadn’t picked this up again. I read the first two trilogies repeatedly as a teenager, loving them. I’m going to let the rest of the books live in my memory and give The Last Chronicles, written long after, a miss.by