Stephen R. Donaldson,
The Runes of the Earth:
The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant

(G.P. Putnam's Sons, 2004)

If you've read even a smattering of science fiction, chances are you've read at least one book in Stephen R. Donaldson's Thomas Covenant: The Unbeliever series. A longtime fan favorite, the books have sold 6 million copies since they were first published in 1977, invoking favorable -- though not necessarily accurate -- comparisons with another masterpiece of fantasy literature, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Donaldson's masterful fantasy epic is considered by its highly devoted following to be a very detailed and highly psychological piece of work, with exquisite attention paid to both the description of the Land, a place that occupies the same cult status in the canon of fantasy literature as the desert planet of Frank Herbert's Dune, the Mars of Edgar Rice Burrough's John Carter or Larry Niven's Riverworld; and the interior lives of the two lead characters, Thomas Covenant, a.k.a. The Unbeliever and White Ring Wielder, and his lover, Dr. Linden Avery, called The Chosen by the people of the Land. The unique twist to the series is that the Land may or may not be real: between bouts of unconsciousness and waking, Covenant travels from his "real" world to the Land, a place of natural beauty beyond imagining and threatened by an ancient evil. Or is it an internal world created by a mind that's cracked under the strain of too much grief? At the series' climax, Covenant perished battling the blight to the Land known as Lord Foul while Linden Avery created a talisman called the Staff of Law to help heal the Land of Foul's life-killing Sunbane. She returned to their world without Covenant to attempt to build a new life without the man to whom she'd become completely devoted.

The final chapter in the saga of Thomas Covenant, one of the most controversial heroes in fantasy literature, draws to a close with the first of four books in The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant: The Runes of the Earth. Ten years have passed in the real world. Dr. Avery, who has the white-gold ring that was Covenant's, is now a doctor at a mental hospital in the town where Covenant lived, a place that treats many of the emotionally shell-shocked members of the cult that killed Covenant and drove his fragile-minded wife Joan insane. She is also an adoptive mother to a teenage boy called Jeremiah, whose mind and body (he was left with only half of his hand after a fire) were severely damaged by the fanatics of the cult. Additionally, she watches over Joan, now a permanent resident of the facility for the last decade as her mind, which never recovered from either Covenant's death or the trauma inflicted on her by the cult, turns in on itself.

Unexpectedly, Roger Covenant, Joan's son by Thomas, turns up, wanting his mother released into his care. But there's something not quite right about the shifty Roger. When Linden refuses to remand Joan to his care, Roger kidnaps her. In the ensuing violence, Linden is shot. As she slowly bleeds to death from a gunshot wound, she finds herself returning to the Land.

Sadly, the Land only ever calls out when it's needed. True to form, it's a Land she hardly recognizes as the beautiful place it once was. Once again the Despiser, Lord Foul, has taken hold of the Land in an attempt to destroy it and free himself from his imprisonment in the Arch of Time. Once again, thousands of years have passed while generation by generation, the people of the Land have been reduced to an almost primitive state of existence as a result of the drastically reduced environment. It's up to Linden, who is having visions of Thomas and hears his voice guiding her, to find the lost Staff of Law and try to make the Land whole.

Along the way she has to deal with the splintered factions of Haruchai and Ramen, the puzzling cooperation of the once dreaded ur-viles, enemies who now appear to be her helpers, and a host of newly spawned horrors she's never heard of, such as the ravening packs of mutant wolves called kresh that prey on innocent villagers, and the dreaded caesures, a sort of creeping fog that devours everything with a soul in its path. To make matters worse, Lord Foul has taken her son and Joan as hostages, intending to use Covenant's gold wedding band as a way to free himself. With the help of the Ramen and ur-viles, she sets out to find the Staff of Law. In true heroic fashion, she survives life-threatening challenge after life-threatening challenge while winning the respect of her companions in a plot that's full of neat, highly suspenseful twists and turns. The ending contains a juicy cliffhanger, wrapping up a well-written, highly imaginative story.

Donaldson's florid writing brings the Land back to life, even in its current state of disrepair and disunity. His complex characterization is as sharp as ever, his words accurately conveying the despair and devotion of the lead character. The draconian Haruchai and their refusal to compromise on evil, even if it means the destruction of the Land itself; the ur-viles and the inherent contradictions they force on the situation as unlikely allies; and the Ramen and their fierce love of the Land all together comprise the cornerstone of what promises to be another grand adventure. The usual themes of the gray areas between sanity and insanity run like a hotwire current throughout the book. The age-old battle between despair and love is heating up but this time there's more at stake than ever before.

Donaldson writes a convincing tale about the nature of self-sacrifice and fighting for what you believe in with as much passion as you can muster. If the rest of the series follows true, then this novel is for those who want their adventures thrilling and their heroes as human as they are engaging. Not to be missed.

- Rambles
written by Mary Harvey
published 11 September 2004

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