Monday, August 25, 2008

A New Covenant

As promised, I soldiered on through "Fatal Revenant", the second book in the third Thomas Covenant series. I'm glad that I did. While it does not get rid of all the things that annoyed me in the first book, it does offer far more good material for me to appreciate, and marks a return to form for the author.

Donaldson's writing style is still overly wordy and jolting, but by now I've gotten more used to it and can start to enjoy the ride. At first I felt like he has a thesaurus that he relied on overmuch, but the standard purpose of a thesaurus is to keep an author from needlessly repeating words, and Donaldson repeats gleefully. I felt like "percipience," "argent," and "puissance" appear on every page, as though through sheer force of repetition he could turn these into mainstream English words. This used to bother me in the first book; now I just sort of grin, shake my head, and move on.

The book doesn't start off all that promising. After an intriguing finale at the end of the first book, the second starts with more of the same: endless passages of people standing around asking each other, "What is happening? I don't understand! Tell me something I can know!" But it slowly starts to shift into gear. There is a particular moment (described in more detail below the spoilers tag) where I realized that I was actually excited by what was happening: a genuine plot climax, with a tangle of raw emotional rage, a furious epic battle, and a cacophony of cinematically rendered explosions. I checked the page number and thought, "Finally! It only took 800 pages into the series to get to a part I actually enjoy!"

That's a BIT overly harsh - there have certainly been other moments that I've appreciated before this - but this was the first full-bore exciting moment, the first time I felt like the story was being driven by action and not complaining. It was an auger of things to come. I think Donaldson finally hits his stride several chapters into this book, and once he reaches the second part, his confidence enables him to push into a more thrilling stage of storytelling. That isn't to say that he gets rid of exposition, but by now he's explained most things that he can think of, and further exposition is dropped in at opportune times rather than used throughout.


I do think that Donaldson sometimes shows his weaknesses as a writer, particularly related to foreshadowing. The faux Covenant could have been a really cool angle that ratcheted up Linden's sense of hopelessness and betrayal, but Donaldson insists on overly projecting his falseness. Nearly as frequently as he uses the word "percipience," Donaldson will talk about how this Covenant seems different from the one Linden knew, or how he seems to be lying, or how his eyes seem to be flaming. If he'd dropped each of these hints once, that would have been cool - it would give readers a chance to get ahead of the story and figure out what is to come. Since he constantly is talking about how something is wrong here, though, the element of surprise is lost, and we're just left with annoyance at how thick Linden is to not notice that something is wrong.

While it was clear that this wasn't Thomas, I was a bit unsure at first just who he was. My first thought was that it was the Despiser, especially when the author started harping on his flaming eyes. After they meet Berek, I developed an alternate theory, one that I still think would be pretty cool: the Theomach was actually the Despiser, and Covenant was Covenant, but the wrong one - Roger. I do like the Theomach-as-Despiser angle: we know that Lord Foul was hidden during this time, influencing events in the Land without revealing himself, and wouldn't it be totally sweet if he had basically founded the High Lords and set the direction of the Land just to orchestrate the despair of Kevin Landwaster and set up his ultimate victory? I was wrong about the Theomach, but right about Covenant. Still, while Roger was at the top of my list, I can't claim to have been 100% sure of his identity, which means that I could feel at least a little surprise during the Big Reveal.

Linden really should have known something was up. I guess she did know that SOMETHING was wrong, and knew it very early on, when she elected not to talk with Covenant about his messages through Anele. And in some ways that makes it even worse that she gave so much to him. During this section of the book I was regularly reminded of the heroine in Donaldson's "Mordant's Need" books, and wondered if this reveals some specific prejudice the author has. These two series are the only one of his I've read that feature female protagonists, and in both cases, the women make horrible, horrible decisions based on misguided love for a man who betrays them. It just seems a little odd, and in both cases it's hard to keep from yelling, "No, you stupid person! Don't you see that this person is mistreating you?"

I do have more sympathy for Linden than Terisa, though. Covenant is very specifically trying to disguise himself as something he is not, even if he does a rotten job at it. I can't claim that I would do a much better job if a doppelganger came into my own life.

When the truth comes out and all the betrayals are clear, it's still a treat. I think the battle beneath Melenkurion Skyweir is just fantastically done. Donaldson has ratcheted up an extreme emotional intensity going into the conflict that colors everything which follows. As I've previously complained, I tend not to be a very visual reader, but even I could get a very clear mental picture of the various stages of the struggle: Linden bracing herself for power, staff tip dipped into the Earthblood, bellowing in rage as she sends waves of pure power crashing into her foes; Linden striding through the caverns, routing those before her as the mountain crashes down around her. It's all thoroughly satisfying. There were battles before this - clashes with the Kresh, the hopeless fight against Demondim, the skirmish on the edge of Garroting Deep - but this felt like the first battle that actually mattered, where it has earned an emotional investment from the reader.

There's a good clip of battles through the rest of the book as well. Even beside those battles, the book got me on its side deep below Melenkurion Skyweird, and I started enjoying the "quieter" moments as well. The meeting with the Forestal was poignant and powerful. The sequence with the Mahdoubt went on for a few pages too long - people talking about themselves in the third person can become tiring, double so if the narrator notes that they're doing it - but given the story aspect of this I was more than forgiving. When they finally approach Andelain towards the end of the book I'm ready for more conflict, and not disappointed with the advent of the skurj and the much-appreciated reintroduction of Giants. By this point the book is moving confidently from scene to scene, carrying the reader rather than making the trek a chore.

I'm left with a few specific questions at the end that will require the next book to explain. Of course, the big issue is the resolution of the Worm of the World's End and what its awakening will cause. Linden has once again made a high-profile foolish choice, but will clearly have some chance at redemption - I think we've been promised two more books before the end. (I should also note that I wasn't really surprised by this. The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant have a traditional pace to them: a minor victory ends the first book, a major defeat ends the second, and an ultimate though slightly ambiguous triumph caps the series. Whatever other changes may have taken place, Donaldson has kept this rhythm.) And the most immediate question is Thomas Covenant: what is his power? Has he been removed from the Arch, and if so, is it weaker than before he joined? Who now owns the white gold? Almost as important, Anele has been set up as the ultimate hero of this saga, and it'll be interesting to see what role he plays. Finally, I wonder whether Linden will continue narrative ownership, or if it will shift or be split to other characters.

One final unresolved question: who the heck do you think is on the cover of the book? I wondered this throughout the entire time, and never found a character who matches the description. The closest I can come is Caerroil Wildwood, given the tree in the background, but even that doesn't make sense, since the clothing is completely wrong. Clothes are also too simple for the Harrow, and the character description doesn't match that of the Theomach. He's too old for Covenant, and too strong to be Anele. It's far from the most important mystery, but still one that will bug me.

And, a final note: "Theomach" is way too clever of a character name. I mentally groaned the first time I heard him named. Donaldson does tend to play around with names - skurj, Harrow, etc. - but Theomach is a bit too precious for me.


All told, this was a fine book that is far better than its immediate predecessor. I can't claim to like it as much as, say, George R. R. Martin's books, but it has recaptured the raw hurt and intensity that I remember from the earlier Thomas Covenant books, and as such I certainly will make room for it and the sequels.

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