An amazing and very welcome return to a fantasy realm last seen in 1983.
BOOK REVIEW STEPHEN DONALDSON THE RUNES OF THE EARTH 2004 Orion Gollancz Press
A welcome return to The Land, the Tolkien-sque fantasy realm last seen in 1983’s White Gold Wielder. Many late return science fiction and fantasy novels disappoint, as with Asimov’s later Foundation stories or Arthur C Clarke’s later sequels to 2001; A Space Odyssey. The Last Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant read like the work of an author still very much at the height of his craft.
Though written quarter of a century on, the story is set just ten years after the close of the Second trilogy of the Chronicles. Thomas Covenant is dead in two worlds – The Land and ours. He reminds Linden Avery of this himself in troubling dream visions where he also calls on her to find him, and not to trust him.
Avery, a nurse drawn into his second series of adventures, now carries his wedding ring, which proved to be a source of extremely powerful magic in The Land. The trouble is that it isn’t the only ring. Covenant’s now insane wife, Joan, also bears one. She had left Covenant when he had been diagnosed in our World as suffering from leprosy, taking their son, Roger, away with her. Later, the Land’s evil overlord, Foul, The Despiser, had embroiled her in a cult that worshipped Covenant in the second Chronicle, a sect created in our World.
Upon getting back to our World after Thomas Covenant’s apparent death, Avery had adopted a child of her own, a boy called Jeremiah, himself a victim of the cult created by Lord Foul. Now Foul has drawn Joan, Roger and the abducted Jeremiah directly into the land, along with Linden Avery, who has been separated from the others and dedicates herself to saving her son, and Joan.
Avery finds herself on a familiar landscape unknown to the other mortals, but the landmark watch-tower, Kevin’s Keep is destroyed within minutes of her arrival in the Land – a shocking moment given the Keep’s significance in preceding stories.
Time in the Land moves at a different rate than that of our World, and though a decade has past in our World, 3,000 years have passed in The Land, so Avery is shocked to meet people from the distant past – people with no right to still be alive. She finds out that this is a consequence of Joan’s indiscriminate desperate use of the raw white magic from her wedding ring – Avery is careful to avoid using her power, actually Thomas Covenant’s old powers, because magic has consequences in the holistic Land. Joan however is creating chaos, and whirlwinds of energy called fall, virtually a time vortex series of tornadoes that drag characters from the past into the present.
If Foul had planned on using Joan, he now fears her himself, as she is such a loose cannon of indoctrinate deranged and frightened power. Foul appears to actually help Avery in her quest to find a way to bring this devastating crisis under control, but can Avery trust The Despiser? Does she have a choice, given that he seems to have Jeremiah as a hostage?
Among the people displaced in time is Amele; son of the people Avery gave control of the Staff Of Law to. In being whisked off by a fall, Amele has left the Staff Of Law, a source of reason, balance and healing, in the distant past. His own sanity has disintegrated because of his failure to maintain his responsibility for it.
Avery finds that the people of the Land know little if anything of the magical earth energy of the Land itself. A polluting force known as Kevin’s Dirt is weakening the land, and to cap it all, the once fierce warrior caste Haruchai, have become a monastic and secretive group, keeping their knowledge of the land’s rich history and powers a secret from the general population, and suppressing any attempt to discover its secrets or challenge Lord Foul. The Haruchai to there own cost that actions have consequences and try to prevent anything from happening.
Avery’s arrival in the Land changes everything, and she is not prepared to do nothing but wait with her son abducted by Foul. She sets out on a plan to ride a fall into the past to recover the Staff of Law, an action of potentially enormous consequences.
Donaldson is not offering a cosy time travel story where everything gets conveniently put right. The effects of Avery’s crusade have enormous effects, for herself and all. The dreadful evil of The Illearth Stone will be unleashed on the World once more because of her. A common theme in the book is that of the consequences of fighting evil with evil. Characters are made rather enigmatic, and there are many mysteries that won’t be resolved until late in the planned five book series. (The first three volumes of which are now out).
A mature and often violent continuation of a series that often gets compared to Tolkien, but Donaldson’s Land is very much a realm of its own, and we are still seeing effects of actions taken by Thomas Covenant millennia before. Thinking the Land was just a fevered dreamscape generated in his leprosy he had raped a woman, only to see the effects of his action on a very real people generations down the line. Avery now finds that even a magical group of horses, the Ranyhyn, assigned by Thomas Covenant to guard the daughter his attack had given birth to, are now embroiled in events.
Thomas Covenant’s absence from the book is a disappointment, and hints of his potential survival in some form are inevitably leading to something highly significant. The book seems to miss him. We see little of the other Earth humans involved in the story once the violent events in our World trap them in The Land. Avery appears to be dead in our World now, making it unlikely she can ever go back. While we know Joan Covenant is mad and throwing her magic round wildly we are given no clues as to her location, how she gets food or shelter, etc. We know Jeremiah is a captive of Lord Foul but nothing more, and Roger, the killer who’s action has drawn them all to The Land, is barely referred to in the first of the Last five volumes of the Chronicles.
The story involves a lot of recapping, and a reading of the preceding six volumes is essential to understanding what is going on, but this is one of the best of all Fantasy works, indwell worth the effort.
The earlier Chronicles counter-balanced the corruption of the Land to the disintegration of Thomas Covenant’s leprosy ravaged body – Lord Foul became a symbol of the decay in the magical values of the realm. With Avery, rationality and healing were introduced, and now the Land is suffering from alienation, separation from its roots, as in Avery’s sense of loneliness in a decade of life without Covenant. Also, the Land is inflicted with desperation and madness through Joan’s derangements. Avery has her work cut out for herself this time for sure.