Thursday, 13 September 2012

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson

Ouch. My wild magic hurts.
Every so often there comes along a book that is capable of devastation, one that wreaks emotional havoc and leaves strewn in its wake nothing but exhaustion, myopia and psychological ruin. I refer you to something like A Million Little Pieces by James Frey (back when it was biography and not fiction) or, for very different reasons, A La Recherche du Temps Perdu (which, at over a million words, is the very definition of an exhausting read). Both books have had, at different times, the same power to make me want to engulf any handy intoxicant and cry myself to sleep.

Picture then, if you will, not one novel, not even 7 (à la Marcel Proust), but 9 books of the most soul-crushing emotional turmoil imaginable. Admittedly I have yet to read books 7, 8 and 9, but after reading the second omnibus of Thomas Covenant, I think I’m due a break.

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever sees the eponymous sceptic and leper thrust back into the service of The Land, an alternate reality where Covenant’s illness is held in check and where his wedding band, a remnant from a marriage ended by the onset of his condition, holds the key to unimaginable power. The Land is sick, Lord Foul’s Sunbane afflicting all life with its alternating droughts, deluges, pestilence and febrile fertility. The people he once knew are gone, 3000 years having passed since his last visit, in relative temporal terms, and those that remain make sacrifices of blood to ensure their survival. The Land is devastated, next to death. This time, however, following him across the divide is an equally disturbed doctor, named The Chosen and also Sun Sage, and whose presence is a matter of great concern to everyone, especially Covenant.

I read somewhere that Donaldson was fearful of writing a follow up to the first three books, and also the third story arc once number two was under the belt. In fact, this is what he said:
“I was afraid. At my first glimpse of The Last Chronicles, I knew that it would be astonishingly difficult to write... in order to accomplish that goal I'll have to go far beyond my known abilities, both as a story-teller and as a writer. The prospect terrified me.”
Before beginning The Last Chronicles... he also told his official website, 
“I'm not ready... I'm probably never going to be ready.” 
You may think he is talking about the commitment of time, the pitting of his abilities against an Herculean task, or proving to the world that the success of the first books was not just a fluke. I believe he is talking about mining the depths of the soul, re-visiting the dark places where Covenant’s irrational and disease-ridden impulses push up through his conscious will to corrupt his desire to help. It must be a terrifying experience, to submerge oneself in such a dark way of thinking, considering that reading what he writes is a challenging endeavour. Reading 1200 pages of it is like submitting to electro-shock. I can’t imagine what writing it must take out of him.

Even if it takes the reader to the dark recesses of the soul, and strips psychological flesh from psychological bones, as Covenant and co. stumble from one disaster to the next, crises building to the point of ultimate crisis, it has one major redeeming feature: it is damned fine writing. The spectre of hope is always tantalizingly out of reach, just over the next page, just past this latest tragedy, just one more day bathed in the evil glow of the Sunbane, until you think you can’t go on, but you do. The reader must mirror the trials and tribulations of Covenant to reach catharsis, pushing relentlessly through pages of terror and torment to realise the release of The Land from the grip of the Despiser. Donaldson demands an investment of time and emotion that I have yet to discover in another author, and it is a cost I am willing to pay (albeit with some time off between chronicles to recharge the brain with some light-hearted tom-foolery). In all seriousness, something you probably won’t expect from the pages of this review-type blog, if you have a few weeks to devote to something good, something great, something challenging, something brutal, something beautiful to read, then devote it to this series. 


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