Saturday, February 02, 2008

Review: The Runes of the Earth

I first read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant way back in high school, right after The Lord of the Rings. The two trilogies are of course very different. First of all, I think Stephen R. Donaldson burnt out his thesaurus a long time ago. He is verbose, prone to using words and colors that you can guess at but would really need a dictionary handy to look up, and overly dramatic.

But this first set of books caught my attention because of its characters. The lead character is as anti-hero as they come (he rapes a girl in an early section of Lord Foul's Bane, which alienates many women readers I know --- and since women read more than men, that's not something that you really want to do if you want to achieve bestseller status). Abusive and rough, Thomas Covenant runs rough-shot over a vibrant fantasy world in such a way that you can't quite believe that he is supposed to be the savior. Yet the internal narrative of Covenant is such that at least, for a teenager going through the tumult of alienation, loneliness and despair, was very appealing. In fact, at the end of the first trilogy, his redemption and healing was very moving, and something I took quite to heart.

The second chronicles weren't as compelling for me, introducing a character, Linden Avery, who was abused in her own way as a child, but ultimately was too passive for me to want to pay a lot of attention to her. In fact, I was very surprised that I remembered almost none of the plot summarized in the leading section of The Runes of the Earth.

Has 20 years improved Donaldson's writing style? In many ways, it has. First of all, he seems much less dependent on a thesaurus this time, and his style seems much more stripped down, less extravagant and flowery, but more conducive to story telling. His character, Linden Avery, is still not as interesting a character to me as Thomas Covenant, but this time I'm much more interested in her (perhaps that reflects the changes in me, rather than the changes in Donaldson's approach). She's now the director of a hospital specializing in mentally injured patients, and has adopted a son who is autistic. One of her patients is Joan Covenant, Thomas Covenant's wife, who was difficult to manage, but when Covenant's son shows up to claim her and is denied, things start moving quickly, and quite soon, Avery is translated back to the Land, along with her son Jeremiah and Joan, and Avery starts a quest to rescue her son and redeem the land in the process.

Avery as a character is insecure, but much less in denial of her reality. As a result, she's much more willing to wield the power of the ring (there's much less of the impotence theme her in this book), and willing to take on more risks. She encounters many of the previous cultures in prior novels such as the Haruchai, the Ranhyn, and Ur-viles. Continuity and previously known facts are conveniently side-stepped through the common science fiction device known as time travel. If you suspend your disbelief, all this works, but perhaps one thing that escapes me at this point is why? I guess I should suspend judgment until I've read the remaining pieces of the series, but for now, if the first chronicles is about redemption and the second chronicles is about healing, perhaps the third chronicles is about taking risks. I will keep reading to figure it out, but cannot provide a recommendation until the story is complete.
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