on September 27, 2000
I started reading Fantasy of course with JRR Tolkien's Lord Of the Rings. My second introduction to the world of Fantasy was Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.
Thomas Covenant's by some strange stroke of Fate or perhaps calculated strategy, finds himself in The Land - a place of unsurpassed beauty where Earthpower is a source of power/energy that is tapped on by its people. Covenant is given a message of Doom and asked to deliver this message to the Council of Lords. But Covenant vehemently denies the existence of the Land' fashioning himself as `The Unbeliever' and his continuous battle with himself in this new but very real environment as well as the genuinely miraculous healing of his leprosy inflicted limbs, added to my wholehearted involvement in the novel. It was difficult to bear his continuous reluctance to accept The Land and shoulder the responsibilities handed to him - Thomas Covenant is not an immediately likeable character - in his rejection of The Land, he commits shocking acts and yet the reader is drawn to his vulnerabilities and his fierce struggle to above all, keep himself alive. I found myself urging him on - it was an extraordinary effect.
The language of the Land is also intriguing, an `Old Style' English which I loved and as I got more engrossed in the book, found myself using in my everyday speech....
All in all, a superb book, 14 years later, I am yet to find a Fantasy Book that rivals this. Enjoy!
on December 5, 2006
I've read all of the reviews here and have something to say to those with negative opinions of this series: for those of you who have relayed your reviews succinctly, I respect your collective opinions. This series is not for everyone. But to those who's reviews seemed to reflect confusion, please give this series another try. You obviously did not 'get it.'
This series is not about a fantasy land within which Covenant travels, such as other fantasy books dictate - yes, it is a story of a man who travels through the Land, however it is mostly about what happens to a person (physically, emotionally, mentally) who contracts and suffers with leprosy. The Land was Covenant, literally. When you look back at the characters, at the nuances of the Land, at the abilities of the Lords and such, and then put these details to the variety of physical aspects of the body, you can see a whole other series and story taking place.
Covenant was the Land. Though it is dreary and somewhat tiresome to read, the first book - Lord Foul's Bane - is the most important. It is where you, the reader, learn all you need to know about leprosy. Apply all that you learn there to the rest of this series, and the next three books, and you have a deeper understanding of Donaldson's genius.
BTW: on a side note, Donaldson - a master of language - spent some time in India with his father, who worked very closely with lepers. His experiences there shine through in this series.
The follow-up series' first book - The Runes of the Earth - follows the same pattern as this sets of series, except instead of leprosy the story follows a more psychological approach, mainly psychosis. I am anxious to read the next three books in the final series of this epic.
When I read this series and the series that followed, I was so stunned by everything - the story, the characters, the method of Donaldson's writing - I could read nothing else for a year. It was roughly 12 months later that I finally broke down and bought the Myth series by Robert Aspirin to 'clean my pallet' so that I could once again read a serious fantasy series.
And know that this series was written well before most of the fantasy series you have probably read.
on November 19, 2003
"The Power that Preserves" is amazing. Astonishing. Breathtaking. The sort of fantasy novel that you expect to find once a decade, if it's a particularly good decade. This is the culmination of a story that so big you can barely believe it fits in three books, so intense that it seems amazing that any person could actually have written it. It is a story you will never forget.
One portion of the novels follows Lord Morham as he attempts to save the Land from total destruction in a final battle against Lord Foul's forces. The giant reaver Satansfist has Morham and the other wizards and defenders of the Land under siege at the castle of Revelstone. This contest is in amazing piece of virtuoso writing, perfectly melding several great action sequences with intense psychological passages to create something dazzling. I feel perfectly comfortable saying the Donaldson is the only fantasy author who has ever equaled Tolkien in writing battle scenes. The emotional triumph at the conclusion of this one is, well, words just can't describe it.
Any lesser author would have devoted an entire book just to that. For Donaldson, however, it's just the prelude to the main event. The main event, it's no spoiler to say, is the final showdown between Thomas Covenant and Lord Foul. And what a showdown it is. When Donaldson started writing this trilogy, the most important decision he made was that his main character would not be a standard fantasy hero. Thomas Covenant, of course, is the most deeply sympathetic and real character ever to appear in any fantasy novel. Having created a person as amazing as this one, of course, poses the problem of how to provide a satisfying conclusion while still remaining true to the character. Probably nobody alive could have pulled it off as well as Donaldson, but then again no one other than Donaldson would ever have attempted a fantasy series this ambitious anyway.
So in conclusion, read it, love it, be amazed by it.
It's obvious that Donaldson was cutting his teeth, so to speak, while writing Lord Foul's Bane. To be certain, that book had periods of brilliance, such as the occurrences in Andelain, but all in all it was probably the weakest book in the series. (That doesn't mean it isn't good - just that the rest of the books are incredible.)
In The Illearth War Covenant is called back to the Land for a second time, and his image of a reluctant hero is burnished in our mind even more than it was in the previous book, for while he was being summoned he was also on the phone with his ex-wife, Joan. The woman who left him for fear of his leprosy, the woman with whom he was still in love, the woman who was telling him, right then, that she missed and needed him. So he protests his summoning vehemently, but to no avail. As the new High Lord Elena indicates, they have no knowledge of how to send a person back once a summons is complete.
The Council of Lords has some new faces on it. It's been forty years since Covenant has been to the Land, and seven years (seven "Land" years) remain until the fulfillment of Foul's ominous prophecy from Lord Foul's Bane. The Lords are desperate. While they regained the Staff of Law and found High Lord Kevin's Second Ward at the end of Lord Foul's Bane, they have learned very little. The language, they find, is difficult to penetrate, and they find themselves unequal to the task of mastering the lore. Due to their sense of overwhelming failure and inadequacy, and other baleful events, they make the decision to summon Covenant.
There is another addition to Revelstone: Hile Troy. He is a character from the "real world", someone who has read (or had read to him) Covenant's best selling novel. This is, perhaps, Donaldson's way of telling us that Covenant's experiences most definitely is not a dream (which Covenant is still convincing himself of). He's also blind, and unlike Covenant - who maintains fierce unbelief - Troy believes in the Land with a passion that precludes life.
Many readers interpret Troy's character as what Covenant *should* be. If Hile Troy had a white gold ring, his passion, his love for the land (for it allowed him to see again - and besides, everyone, even the readers, fall in love with the Land) would lead him directly to a confrontation to Foul. Unfortunately, not understanding the dilemmas of power, he would likely experience a resounding defeat. What people don't understand about Covenant, and Troy's character is supposed to help them understand this, is that Covenant's stubborn unbelief exists for a reason. In Lord Foul's Bane, Donaldson meticulously discussed the rigors of leprosy, what it meant to be a leper, what it meant to *survive* as a leper. And though bitter and angry at life and everything around him - or perhaps because of his bitterness - Covenant made the decision to live. And living entails never, ever letting your guard drop for one second. Because if you do, you can bump into something, not realize that you're bleeding internally, and die of hemorrhaging; gangrene can set in; and much more. So Covenant's unbelief, while incredibly frustrating, is completely understandable. He needs to believe that the Land isn't real, because if he gives in to it, then when he wakes up from his dream (for it may be a dream), his guard may drop, and he could die.
So it's unfortunate that people don't recognize Troy for what he is, and see him for exactly the opposite of what Donaldson intended.
Other reviewers have said this is the best book in the series. I love this book, as it introduces some extremely intriguing relationships and concepts (Elena and Amok, the latter of which is the key to High Lord Kevin's Seventh Ward - talk about heightened anticipation), and the devastating fear that Foul has mastered the Illearth Stone to such a degree that he can cut chips off of it and give it to his servants (Ravers).
The battle of Garrotting Deep (yes, similar in placement and scope to the epic Battle of Helm's Deep in The Two Towers) shows that Donaldson, like Tolkien before him, can write both of beauty and of beauty's absence in the heart of darkness of war. He is quite adept at handling battle scenes.
Many second books suffer from the so-called sophomore slump. Not this one. I don't think Donaldson is capable of writing such a book, as The One Tree (the second book in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) is arguably the most intriguing of the series, and within that book in particular are the seeds for the Last Chronicles, which everyone - and I mean everyone - should read.
on October 26, 2004
Back in the 1970's it was Donaldson and Terry Brooks who proved that an audience for the genre of fantasy existed. It was Donaldson who proved that an author could publish, sell well, and still write something of definitive literary merit. While it is indisputable that Tolkien brought the genre of fantasy into existence it was still widely regarded as something for children (something fantasy fiction still struggles with today) and it is Donaldson who first wrote something that can only be aimed at adults. The Chronicles' influence over the last three decades has been and can be traced to Eddings' Belgariad, Feist's Riftwar Saga, and any of a host of crossover fantasy novels published in the genre. It's only defect and what prevents it from receiving our highest recommendations is the patina of ugliness that Covenant inevitably breeds. It's an irony about the word because it is the ugliness of Covenant that elevates the rather routine plot into something of literary merit but at the same time it will prevent The Chronicles from being the most cherished in people's minds.
WHO SHOULD READ:
For anyone who has complained that fantasy novels are too lighthearted or too childlike, Donaldson has answered your complaint with a staunch challenge. His Chronicles are a gladiatorial arena where in the pit metaphysics slugs it out not in the pristine abstractions of philosophers but in the blood, sweat, and madness of the arena. It is a terrific blend of pulse-quickening action immersed in carefully constructed philosophy. Any reader versed in philosophical discourse in either free will or ethics will be profoundly moved by Covenant's struggles. At the same time, readers with no taste in philosophy whatsoever who are firmly grounded in a sense of black/white and right/wrong will be equally moved by these books because the battles and action will mean something to them rather than events occurring like so many special effects in some rotten film starring Sylvester Stallone or Jean Claude Van Damme.
WHO SHOULD PASS:
The reader should beware of the content. It's very popular to accuse George RR Martin of having some kind of monopoly on books where bad things happen to really good (and popular) characters. That's not the case at all: next to Donaldson he is a child. Real crimes are committed and terrible sacrifices are made and it is something that the delicate should avoid. Additionally, many readers have been upset with the dense prose and idealized setting of The Chronicles. This is something that's rather important to what the book is about but that doesn't lessen the irritation that some people feel. If you have knee-jerk (and perhaps unwarranted) reactions to overt echoes of Tolkien or have a severe allergic reactions to similes (Donaldson cannot seem to write without liberal use of simile) then you might seek elsewhere. But really, these books were a groundbreaking event in fantasy publishing and shouldn't be missed.
READ THE ENTIRE REVIEW AT INCHOATUS.COM
on January 2, 2003
4 1/2 stars.
Having reread Lord of the Rings in anticipation of the films last year, I recently also paid a visit to another fantasy series that I enjoyed while in middle school: Thomas Covenant. Nearly 20 years later, I appreciate the books more. The themes are very adult and while I enjoyed the books as a child because Donaldson creates a great fantasy-world that will interest and draw in readers of all ages, I am better able to understand what Donaldson was trying to accomplish now that I'm older.
The Illearth War is probably the best book in the series. The quick maturation of Donaldson's writing style makes this book a much better read than the first installment. In fact, after rereading the series, I think that Donaldson knew that his second book was put together better than the first to the extent that he made it so that reading the first book really isn't necessary. There is enough back-story revealed in the first few chapters so that any reader could grasp most of what happened in the first book, as it happened, without having to read it.
In my review of the Lord Foul's bane, I was preoccupied with detailing the many similarities between the Thomas Covenant series and Lord of the Rings and, thankfully, there is much less of this in Illearth War. Obviously, the basic principles of the story are retained, but the only new thing added that seems LOTR-related is that this second novel in the TC series is a war novel (with a side story of two major characters being led by a strange guide in search of something), and thus the general structure of Illearth War is copied from The Two Towers. But Dondaldson is more his own voice here, and that is a welcome change. The psyche and personality of Thomas Covenant is fleshed out much more fully here than in LFB; ironically, since Covenant has a far less prominent role as a character here than in LFB. This is accomplished by two foils for Covenant: the Lord Morham (a good man by which we can see how Covenant may have turned out had he been born to the land), and the character of Hile Troy, a blind man who is from Covenant's world (a man who is in nearly every sense the opposite of Covenant).
Aside from some highly unlikely military tactics on the part of Lord Foul's army (I have no idea why an immense invading army would ever chase the much smaller defending army across a continent to do battle on the smaller army's terms; the larger invaders could simply set about their business of destruction and occupation and force the defenders to come to them), there is nothing about this novel that bothered me the way some small things about the predecessor did. This is a richly detailed, yet taut and economical fantasy novel -- certainly one of the best that I've ever read. Even Lord Foul is made more menacing by eliminating him from the dialogue: the reader gets to see the effects of Foul's evil rather than experience it from his mouth [a mistake Donaldson made in the first novel, IMO, was to give Foul too much to say. How do you characterize pure evil? The more Foul said, the less evil he seemed, and the more he appeared to be like the standard chortling, pontificating villain that we've seen a million times in novels and film; the type where the hero makes his escape while the self-satisfied villain goes into exhaustive detail about the various ways in which he is going to torture and kill the hero].
The novel is dark stuff, and sometimes emotionally draining. But the life put into these characters makes their every decision and action one to linger over and abosrb before moving on. If you're not hooked on the Thomas Covenant series after reading Illearth War, nothing else in either of the two series will likely do it for you.
on August 26, 2001
This is Donaldson's best book -- the best of the Covenant series and better than any other fantasy written in the past 20 years. It's that good. Continuing the story from Lord Foul's Bane, the reluctant anti-hero leper Thomas Covenant returns to the mysterious Land, where he is again called upon to save it even as he must deny its existence to try and maintain his sanity. Of course, there is the added twist that he doesn't even know how to use the awesome power of the white gold wedding band at his wrist, even if he wanted to. Meanwhile, in the "real world," life is getting even tougher for Covenant. The forces of evil are at work in both worlds, with a titanic war splitting the Land and threatening to destroy it utterly. It's rare these days for a fantasy to be truly fantastic. Too often, hacks like David Eddings or Terry Brooks simply recycle plots from their earlier days and write hack and slash 'em pulp novels that are read one day and mind-flushed the next.
Donaldson's novels sear themselves into your brain, so that you remember them for years, decades after you last read them. The characters -- Foamfollower, the Bloodguard, Lord Mhoram, Lena -- each is deep and rich with emotional scars and a quiet strength and courage. Covenant in comparison can't help but appear bad, yet somehow, through his travels in the Land, he slowly, slowly manages to find his humanity again that had been stripped away by leprosy and VSE. If you haven't read the Covenant series, do yourself a favor and go read Lord Foul's Bane, then the Illearth War and the rest of the books. They are the treasure of modern fantasy.
on October 11, 2014
Stephen R. Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever is a work of great literary merit and one of the all-time great fantasy fiction offerings. Dark and introspective, bleak yet redemptive, truly strange and strangely compelling, The Chronicles is a work of genuine depth and power. Whenever I read Donaldson I think of another favorite author of mine, Dostoevsky, since Donaldson is to the world of fantasy fiction what Dostoevsky is to the world of literature in general: perhaps the greatest master of conveying psychological depth, turmoil and complexity.
The reader might be forgiven for thinking I was about to compare Donaldson to Tolkien. However, Donaldson-Tolkien comparisons are as unhelpful as they are ubiquitous. Sure, Donaldson's fantasy imagination was obviously influenced by The Lord of the Rings, but in the final analysis this influence is rather superficial. Donaldson has had from the beginning his own highly distinctive and articulate voice. He's used Tolkien's work as a tool, not as a crutch. The sadly all too common complaint that the first Covenant trilogy is a Lord of the Rings retread forces me to suspect that many readers merely taste Donaldson's work rather than chew and digest it. Unfortunately, mere tasting does not provide the nourishment.
Another common complaint, somewhat at odds with the earlier one, takes issue with the dark nature of this trilogy, as exemplified through the soul journey of the selfish, indecisive, self-lacerating, mistake prone protagonist, the leper Thomas Covenant. This complaint rings truer than the first-this series is not for everyone. Donaldson teaches about the human condition through an unsparing and articulate examination of inner pain and turmoil, and this has a limiting effect with regards to his audience. No matter that Donaldson ultimately conveys sustaining, beautiful truths, some will inevitably find Donaldson's "extreme" approach unappealing. However, I imagine any reader may one day find himself in an inner place where Donaldson's writing seems very relevant. "These are the pale deaths which men miscall their lives" muses the outcast Thomas Covenant near the beginning of Lord Foul's Bane. To readers for whom this statement rings uncomfortably true, a compelling journey awaits.
Covenant's journey in "the land" is a brilliant appropriation and original use of a Tolkien inspired fantasy setting. Is "the land" real or simply Covenant's dream? Covenant can neither affirm its independent existence nor, as the series progresses, deny its claim on him. "The land" offers healing, hope, fellowship, and an important role to play, yet if it is not real, then "the land" actually threatens the self-protective habits Covenant relies on in the real world. This tension between belief and unbelief threatens to tear Covenant apart, yet he must find a way to deal with this issue as he is drawn ever closer to a showdown with Lord Foul, the despiser.
It cannot be stressed enough that this trilogy needs to be completed before it can be properly evaluated. This is true even though the initial volume, Lord Foul's Bane, does function in certain respects as a stand alone tale. Unfortunately, many readers give up on the trilogy after the first book. Some Donaldson enthusiasts encourage prospective readers of books 2 and 3 to carry on by claiming that Lord Foul's Bane, while good, is the weakest of the bunch. I disagree. The high quality of the first book is quite evident. I do think, though, that several helpful points can be made regarding Lord Foul's Bane. First, I freely concede that Covenant's initial translation from the real world to "the land" is written somewhat awkwardly. However, this is a speed bump rather than a structural defect. Secondly, the Tolkien similarities (though superficial) are quick to appear. All I can say here is that is equally apparent to me that Donaldson is his own man. Third, Covenant commits a heinous act early in the story which seems to call for more follow-up than it appears to receive. Here especially it is important to remember that Lord Foul's Bane only serves "in part" as a stand alone story- a fuller treatment of the consequences of Covenant's crime on Covenant and those around him appears in the later volumes-and also that the trilogy is meant to be redemptive.
The Chronicles was published when Donaldson was about 30 years old. I've often heard admirers of Donaldson wonder how a man in his 20's could have written such a remarkable work. To me, Donaldson's trilogy reads like the work of a young man, and this is in many ways the key to its appeal. What I mean is this: The Chronicles is carried forward in a youthful spirit of fresh discovery; in response to life's existential travails and dilemmas, Donaldson has uncovered sustaining affirmations he aches to share with passionate intensity. And what a gift he gives us! Donaldson did certainly grow as a writer after this trilogy, and his greatest work in his own opinion isn't Covenant related at all, but rather his Gap series. Donaldson has a marvelous body of work that few can match, and if one is to fully appreciate his greatness as a writer it is necessary to read beyond this initial trilogy. That being said, The Chronicles is the set of books that Donaldson seemed most personally compelled to write, and hence of all his great work probably his signature masterpiece.
Beyond 5 Stars
on November 22, 2011
[Updated 16 Oct 13 - I took a lot of flack, because I did not like the book or the main character. The most common flame was "oh! You brute! Thomas is a 'leper'! How can you judge a leper?" Just because someone has a legitimate issue does not mean that I have to approve of their reaction to the issue or enjoy reading about it. If someone put a camera in a public toilet, I would not feel compelled to watch it in the name of art. So, while I understand Thomas is a leper, it really doesn't justify his actions or make it fun to read about.]
It is not a bad trilogy. It is just not near the top of the "must read" stack of fantasy trilogies. If you longingly remember the series from the early 80s then my recommendation is to read Donaldson's more recent works and leave the happy memories from the first time you read it.
Thirty years ago, my friends had nothing but praise for several fantasy series: Lord of the Rings, the Iron Tower, the Narnia books, and Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever.
At the time, I enjoyed the Iron Tower series, but did not have time to read the other three.
Life has been a whirlwind since then, and finally I have had a chance to go back and read some of these "classic" fantasy series.
The Iron Tower series holds up The Iron Tower Omnibus (Mithgar). The writing is tight with interesting characters and real growth in the protagonist.
The Lord of the Rings trilogy and the Hobbit also have aged well. (The prose can be a little dense at times; today's writers do not typically spend three to four pages describing the flora in a random meadow en-route to a destination. But, the plot, the development of the characters, and the sweep of the saga make this one of the best fantasy trilogies of all time.
Narnia is a fine series. It is different than Lord of the Rings. Lord of the Rings was really written for the adult community. The Narnia series was written for children. I look forward to reading Narnia to future grandchildren.
On to our White Gold wielding friend ... be warned, spoilers follow ...
The protagonist is a leper by the name of Thomas Covenant. He is a wretched, bitter creature who was deserted by his wife and son, and Covenant returns the scorn of the world with two heaping scoops of indignation and rage.
There is really nothing ... nothing appealing about him.
Mr. Donaldson clearly did his research on leprosy, but I found it very, very difficult to relate to Thomas Covenant.
In the first book, Thomas takes a stroll into town for no particular reason. His phone bill is being paid for by someone else. It could have been for charitable reasons, but Mr. Covenant assumes in his bitter, paranoid mind that someone has paid for his bill, because society wants to shun him.
As a protest against the world, Mr. Covenant decides to stroll into town to pay his own bill. That will show them!
Er, um, ok, ..., Covenant meets an apparently homeless man who we find out in book three is actually God. God gives Covenant a contrived piece of advice. After a completely abortive attempt to pay the bill, Covenant gets hit by a police car, and, when he passes out, he is magically teleported to "the Land."
This where Donaldson does his best. The Land is a detailed, interesting fantasy world. (While I don't mind a little "purple prose," i.e., superfluous description, Donaldson does manage to pack 53 pages of action into 1100+ pages of description.)
Covenant finds himself as potentially the only hope to defeat the evil force at work in the world.
So, how does Covenant react to this?
He is a total jerk. He ends up raping a woman in the first three days he is there.
Covenant poops on his friends. He acts the coward, and Covenant rejects his fate -- hence the title, Unbeliever.
Through an unlikely series of happenstance and against Covenant's nature and choices, he does end up helping out the natives of the Land, but there is an outstanding prophecy that spells doom for "the Land," but hey, who cares?
There is some sub-plot about Covenant coming to the Land as a leper and being cured while in the Land.
Why would Covenant want to go back to the "real world"? Who knows.
In any event, Covenant returns to the real world.
This brings us to book two.
Covenant is feeling bitter and angry and decides to visit the nearest, large town just to stir things up.
He heads to a cocktail bar where ... dum - dum - dum ... his estranged wife is performing.
After Covenant is run out of town on a rail by the local sheriff, Covenant's wife calls him. While she is talking, Covenant is drawn back to the Land. He falls, hits his head, ... and, he petulantly wants to go back to the real world as soon as he arrives even though his inaction and self-absorbed ways leads to the death of several characters.
This book is more of the same, but it takes more than half of the book before Covenant finally decides to aid the Land.
This book introduces another character from the real world. In this case, he is a blind man.
The blind man does not want to return to blindness in the real world.
Over the course of the book, Covenant, who is deeply, deeply committed to his estranged wife and marriage as shown in the first several chapters, manages to fornicate and spawn a child.
Ummmm ... what?
OK, OK, so, just push the "suspend disbelief" button.
Anyhow, the Staff of Law is broken during the final events of the novel.
Enter book three ... more of the same.
In chapters 20 and 21, Covenant finally channels his rage into defeating the adversary and eventually the Illearth Stone.
In a deus ex machina, Covenant's property is saved, and he is the town hero, because at one point he randomly saves a run away girl.
I'm going to see if the second trilogy is any better than the first.
[Update- 18 DEC 13: it's more of the same]
on April 28, 2014
I read this series years ago and since I bought a Kindle I decided I'd read it again. I remember it being so different than the run of the mill fantasy books. Though sometimes it would be a little confusing, as when a question was asked, and by the time the background--say the topography of the land--was given, and then then the question was answered, I would think, 'wait-- what"? and would have to go back a page to see what brought that on. (whatever he had answered). These books are really deep. If you're looking for something light and fun and quick to read, this ain't it.