17 May 2014

Books: The Runes of the Earth By Stephen R. Donaldson (2004)

When Stephen R. Donaldson returned to the series that made him (bad or good) famous some 20 years after the last book in that series, the biggest question was could he recapture the same audience who read those six tomes back in the early 80s, plus find a new audience that –most likely- never read The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (Lord Foul’s Bane, The Illearth War, The Power that Preservers) and The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (The Wounded Land, The One Tree, White Gold Wielder)? 

It’s always a huge gamble to let a series sit so fallow, but Donaldson felt to complete the series, he needed some time -"the SecondChronicles taught me that I needed to become a much better writer before Itackled The Runes of the Earth and the rest of the Last Chronicles.” So between 1983 and 2004, he spent a good amount of time writing the science fiction themed The Gap series and penning mysteries. As mentioned previously, he was one of the first few authors in the late 1970s to really build on what J.R.R. Tolkien began in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings series. Of course, to set his own distinctive voice, his books were darker and a bit more modern, with an anti-hero whom refused to believe that a place like The Land could exist in the first place. His “high fantasy” books were designed to be more realistic (which, I realize, in a series set in a fantasy land is an oxymoron), with environmental themes and a lot of existentialism. 

When I read them back then, I remember enjoying them because while they were much like Tolkien, they were completely different as well. But I never re-read them (and to be honest, I never knew he had intended to continue the series) if only because I was reading so much other high fantasy, I could never find the time to return to The Land. So in 2004, when this book came out, The Runes of the Earth, I began (what ultimately became) a ten year odyssey of whether I should re-read those six books just so I could read the first of four new books (and I had made a choice back then to stop reading multi-volume series because A, there was so much more I wanted to read and could not devote my time to them, and B, unlike like the first six books that where released one year apart, it could be many years now between books.

But realizing he finished the last book in October of 2013 (almost ten years after he started up again), and that I had at least book one sitting in the garage, I decided to come back to The Land without re-reading the other books again, even though now in 2014, it had been thirty years since I read them. The good thing about them is that Donaldson always wrote a “what came before" -basically, it was “previously on Thomas Covenant" for today's audience.

While it is helpful, as I read I began to wonder if maybe I should’ve re-read the other books. It wasn’t that I couldn’t follow the book, it was that Donaldson kept bring back small pieces, ideas from those books with little explanation (not that I guess I needed them, I’m assuming he felt that anyone reading this new series was a fan and had already read them). But if you were new to this series, you were going to be lost a bit. 

The story begins 10 years after White Gold Wielder (though in the Land, some 3,500 years have passed) and “Linden Avery is now in charge of a clinic for the mentally ill and is responsible, among other things, for caring for Joan Covenant. Roger, son of Thomas and Joan, comes to visit for the first time in many years and seeks to take Joan out of care, claiming that he wants to assume responsibility for the task himself. Roger also demands of Linden his late father's white gold wedding ring, which she does not relinquish. Linden remains suspicious of his intentions, but she is not able to prevent his forceful removal of Joan at gunpoint, and his abduction of Linden's adopted son, Jeremiah. Casualties mount as Joan is taken and — whilst attempting to intervene — Linden, Joan, Roger, and Jeremiah are plunged into the Land, where they must adjust to its new demands.

“On return to the Land, she discovers that the people have no knowledge of the Earthpower she had so cherished before and this knowledge has been denied them by the blight on the land known as Kevin's Dirt. Also this ancient lore is kept from them by the Haruchai, who have now taken upon themselves total responsibility for the Land's defense, discouraging the learning of Earthpower and a knowledge of the Land's history. They have become the "Masters” of the Land. Also, the Land has been beset by caesures (or "Falls") which are strange disruptions created from wild magic by Joan in her madness.

“Linden learns that the Staff of Law, which she left in the care of Sunder and Hollian at the conclusion of The Second Chronicles, was later lost by their son. Its loss has contributed to the degradation of The Land and the changes she discovers, though there is evidence it may still exist, hidden somewhere. This is her only hope, for past events have also altered the Law of Time, the prison which confines Lord Foul, whose abrogation and presence can be discerned in the caesures which currently roam and menace the countryside. Thus Linden begins a long and arduous search for both her son and the Staff, aided as well as opposed by likely and unlikely foes and allies, including the Ramen and Ranyhyn, the Demondim and their spawn, and the mysterious, possibly deranged and near omnipotent character Esmer, son of Cail and the Dancers of the Sea, as well as, regardless of his father, the implacable enemy of the Haruchai.”

While the book runs 513 pages, Donaldson spends nearly 80 pages in the real world setting up what comes after. It’s tedious and takes forever to schlep through. But once the characters make the transition to The Land, the narrative quickens and tale launches into a more assured and sustained focus. Donaldson writes with all the narrative vigor and imaginative world-building that made me enjoy the first series. His tale is rich in paradox, with metaphor and symbolism, and he continues his explorations into the psyches of his characters, as well as themes of madness, estrangement, guilt and personal responsibility.

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