(2007) Stephen Donaldson, Gollancz, £18.99, hrdbk, 896 pp, ISBN 978-0-575-0-7600-6
Fatal Revenant is the second book in the third series of novels concerning Thomas Covenant, The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The first book of the first series, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, was published thirty years ago in the 1970s, and the last book of The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant came out twenty years ago. Then there was quite a gap before the first book (The Runes of Earth) of the third series (The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) came out only four years ago. This book (Fatal Revenant) continues the story. All of which means it is a little difficult for a cold reader as the novel requires at least the previous offering, The Runes of the Earth. Donaldson himself provides a 'What Has Gone Before' chapter taking eleven or so pages. In a couple or three sentences, however...
Thomas Covenant is a leper and finds himself transported to another world, the Land, a beautiful country the population of which includes magically gifted humans and a mythos of strange beings. His wedding ring of white gold gives him a kind of wild, uncontrollable magic and, over the next six novels, he battles various bad guys, but ultimately his opponent is one Lord Foul the Despiser. He is sometimes aided by others from the 'real' world, to which he often returns. One such inter-world traveller is Linden Avery who, despite this series' title, is in fact the main protagonist in the first novel. At the end of the previous novel, Linden takes refuge at last in bastion of Lords Keep from where she spies Thomas Covenant and her adopted son racing towards her. This is strange because Thomas Covenant is supposed to be dead, or at least transcendent.
As in the previous novels, and indeed most fantasy, Fatal Revenant involves journeys. When Linden meets Covenant and her son at Lords Keep, she is startled by the changes to both her son and her one time lover Covenant. Throughout the previous novel she had sought for answers to her many questions on how to retrieve her son and why the Land was beset by Kevin's Dirt, a blight which prevented her from effectively using her ability to sense health or sickness, good or evil. Lord Foul had supposedly imprisoned her autistic son Jeremiah, but now Covenant seems to have forged a close relationship with Jeremiah to her own exclusion. Neither her ex-lover nor her son will allow her to touch them, but require from her either Covenant's talismanic white ring or service from her to themselves. In an act of at least partial faith, she succumbs to their pleas and the three of them embark on a journey through an earlier epoch to save their present Land.
As they journey, heading towards the mountain of Melenkurion Skyweir, the three meet unexpected allies. One, the Theomach, is a member of the mysterious and powerful Insequent race. Another is the legendary Berek, founder of the Lords. Eventually, however, the mountain is reached and Covenant's purpose there is thwarted. At the end of this first part, Linden again loses Covenant and her son, but returns to the present and her friends at Lords Keep.
In the second part of the novel, Linden seeks to make her own choices to save the Land. To this end, she journeys again, this time to Andelain, long a bastion of the Land's potency and beauty. Travelling with friends collected in The Runes of the Earth, some fearsome Haruchaiwarriors as both bodyguards and parole officers, and another of the Insequent, she soon finds that not only her enemies but also some of her companions seek to prevent her reaching Andelain and fulfilling her purpose.
If the plot outline above seems sketchy, it is necessarily so and please accept my apologies. Despite the sketchiness above, both journeys are filled with incident. These incidents are also sure spoilers for the novel as a whole and I have tried not to give away too much with some hopefully careful wording. Working against Linden are Roger, Covenant's son and Lord Foul through the intermediaries of Joan, Covenant's wife, and Kastenessen, a disgraced guardian of the Land. Much is learned of some of the legends of the previous novels; Berek I have already mentioned, but there is also more on the Ur-Viles, the Demondim and the Viles - all mentioned to a greater or lesser extent in previous novels and all linked at the time to Lord Foul and evil. There is also more on the (again) mysterious Elohim race and the link of the Haruchai to the new Insequent race. Perhaps the most interesting of them all, though, is an ambivalent character; Esmer, son to both the Elohim and Haruchai, pops up frequently to either aid or obstruct Linden and to generally confuse alliances.
From the start of the Thomas Covenant books, it was clear that Donaldson wanted to write a variety of adult fantasy which did not require chains, leather gear and extremely unlikely underwear. Previous readers of Donaldson will be familiar with his habit of subjecting the characters to agony, misery, hopelessness and desperation all coupled with alternating vulnerability and arrogance, and this one is absolutely no exception. He has also managed to expand on an already detailed world with a rich imagination unique in modern fantasy. So much I expect from Donaldson and as usual he writes with his own somewhat verbose but assured style, incorporating reversals of fortune, questioned allegiances and so forth in a sort of relentless pursuit of souls laid bare in the extremes of fortune. What I also expected from the start, I am afraid, was a Saturday Matinee style cliff hanger ending. In the two previous Chronicles, especially the first, each novel had at least partial resolution. With this latest series, however, there is no resolution at all. At the end of The Runes of the Earth, Thomas Covenant is seen riding towards Lords Keep - the end. Here a similar technique is used to keep us waiting artificially for the next instalment. I really believe Donaldson is good enough and has a sufficient base of fans to be able to expect us to wait eagerly for the next novel without the cliff hanger. I personally would rather the complete work was finished so that I could read the whole book uninterrupted. I have heard there has been experimentation with per chapter purchase of e-books on the internet and perhaps this is a hard copy equivalent. I certainly hope it does not catch on.
Neverthless, I am waiting for the next, hopefully concluding chapters of the novel The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. As for recommending this volume, I personally wished that I had waited for the complete work to be published before buying any, but I am sure there are Donaldson fans who can't wait to get this instalment, and to them I of course recommend it. For those who have not read the previous Thomas Covenant Chronicles I would get cracking if I were you: there is a long and wonderful journey before you need to lift these recent volumes, as eventually you surely will.
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