I've finally finished reading this book, but I don't think I can properly figure out how I feel about it until I read it again on its own and as part of the whole series. Plus it seems like the few readers of this blog who are familiar at all with Donaldson loathe his books and his characters, so it's not like I have the best audience in the world. In fact, if you don't like Donaldson, save yourself the grief and stop reading now. If you don't, I'll have to presume you're a masochist who secretly likes Donaldson. I'll leave out major spoilers, at least. Anyway, the blog commands it, and I haven't gone 500+ straight days with an entry to stop now, so I will try to write a review anyway.
"The Runes of the Earth" is the first of a four book set that promises to be the "Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant". As I've said previously when discussing Donaldson, I have followed everything about these books closely. The first trilogy was really the first lengthy fantasy epic I read as a teenager aside from "Lord of the Rings". Unlike LOTR, which at the time I found kind of boring (but I now appreciate its greatness and would place it clearly ahead of Donaldson, at least in stature and importance, if not quality), I've been entranced by Covenant books ever since I got my hands on them.
About a year after I finished reading the first trilogy, the first book of the second trilogy, "The Wounded Land", appeared at the bookstore. I bought it and went through the agony of waiting for "The One Tree" and "White Gold Wielder", both of which were great. Like most Donaldson fans, I was curious to see if he would return to the Land at some point, but every interview with him that I read over the years suggested that he was stubbornly refusing, that he had nothing new to say, etc. So I read his science fiction "Gap" series, and I thought it was just kinda there. The whole time I was reading it, I was thinking he should've directed all these creative energies at something he had already taken great care to establish instead of this depressing and evil vision of the future.
So I was pretty excited to find out Donaldson was ready to start writing about the Land again. So much so that I really rushed through this first book. I was too hungry to see where the plot would lead to really savor this book. I skimmed a lot of stuff that I know is going to be neat to read when I go back through with care. Donaldson always does a great job of foreshadowing, and it's very subtle so you miss it the first time, usually. I like going back and seeing that or reading dialogue that has more meanings than you think at first.
So the basic idea of the plot is that Linden returns to the Land. As usual at the beginning of the story, she's got no idea what's going on. Unlike Covenant, though, Linden isn't half-mad and irrational. She is smart, and she actively tries to figure out what's going on. It's tough for her, though, because like in previous trilogies, Foul has already put her feet on a path that leaves her with few choices. So it looks like she's going to spend pretty much the whole story doing what he wants until she can figure out a way to thwart him in the end.
The problem that Donaldson faces here is: how do you get a really smart character to do things that aren't necessarily right? It takes good, clever writing, and Donaldson seems up to it. He spends a lot of time here going over Linden's agonized decisions, and by halfway through the book, she is already at a point where she is considering audacious things with her wild magic (Covenant's ring, which she wears around her neck), things far more dangerous, it seems, than the quest for the One Tree. Where are the Elohim to dissuade or stop her? What is the source of all the different evils that wrack the Land, if not Foul? What has Covenant been doing for 3000 years?
There are a *lot* of unanswered questions here, and the overall quality of the series depends on the answers, much like the 2nd trilogy affirmed all the risks Donaldson took in "The Wounded Land". I think Donaldson will be up to it, and I'm really looking forward to seeing how this all plays out. I like the various new plot devices I've seen so far: the caesures, Kevin's Dirt, Linden's health-sense (in a reasonably healthy Land), the Staff of Law, the Ranyhyn's new depth, the Masters, the descendants from the 2nd trilogy. The one good thing for people who didn't like Covenant is that, so far at least, you don't have to deal with his character. However, it *is* the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, not Linden Avery, so you know he'll have a big role in here somewhere.
So far, I'm not disappointed. Not only is there lots of new stuff going on, but Donaldson is really filling out more of the Land's distant past, too. That old history makes the first two trilogies even more meaningful. I could say a lot more with major spoilers ... so many aspects of the plot and the characters merit a long discussion, but I'll seek that out elsewhere.Posted by Observer at October 19, 2004 07:12 PM
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