Monday, September 08, 2008

The Puissant, Spatulate, and Anything-But Incohate Stephen R. Donaldson

I'm currently reading the second book in Stephen R. Donaldson's "Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" series. It's called "Fatal Revenant," and the two words in the title tell you more about the Thomas Covenant books than my review ever could.

Fatal indeed. The series -- from beginning to end -- is a Kafka-esque meditation on self-hate, doubt, despair, and general unworthiness. The heroes in the books -- Thomas Covenant especially -- are all flawed, bitter, depressed people who would simply lay down and die if they weren't constantly being hounded by those more flawed and bitter than themselves. And whenever a hero IS optimistic and confident, that's because he or she is being set up to cause a Great Calamity, somehow greater than all previous Great Calamities...by the time of this third and final series of books, all of the Greatest of the Great Calamities have been created by thousands of years of idealistic folk who TRIED to do good...but f*cked it all up terribly.

Donaldson -- at least in the "Thomas Covenant" series -- is an expert at making his characters suffer, and somehow managing to make hopeless situations even MORE hopeless, usually by putting innocent people through plot-heavy meat-grinders that produce finely-distilled guilt. All of the reluctant, self-hating heroes in the books are followed around by sweet people who happily sacrifice themselves so the heroes can live...which just makes the heroes even MORE bitter and hateful.

You might wonder how such a series could be FUN. Well, it isn't. But it's fascinating, because over the eight books published so far, Donaldson has built one of the most complex and finely-honed plots you've ever seen. Everything that happens hinges on everything that's come before, and in between the gruesome battles and long stretches of travel, Donaldson delights in demonstrating how his amazing plot fits together.

That's a strength, but it's also a weakness. Each time Donaldson cranks the lever of his Amazingly Complicated Plot Machine, something absolutely amazing DOES happen...but then he spends the next fifty pages explaining WHY it happened. Through exposition, introspection, and verbal flashbacks, he pokes into the darkest corners of his construction, absolutely REVELING in the way he set everything up without giving it away. Then, through similar methods, he explains why certain things DIDN'T happen. You can almost hear him chuckling to himself, "Look at this INCREDIBLE scene I've pulled off...it was all part of my plan!", and even though the scene WAS incredible...well, nobody likes a smug author.

In the meantime he overuses exotic, flowery words in a way that becomes totally annoying. Hence "Revenant." I remember that in the second series he tended to use "spatulate" a lot. In the first book of the final series his word of choice was "incohate." This time around it's "puissant." Seriously, you can't get through a single chapter without somebody saying "puissant," and it stands out so glaringly that you wonder how he got it past the editor. "Theurgy" is a close second.

The most important question is: is "Fatal Revenant" any good? It's preachy, talky, oddly-paced and in love with itself...but I am personally beginning to enjoy it. The first book of the final series ("The Runes of the Earth," AKA "incohate") spent much of its time setting the scene, as does the first half of "Fatal Revenant," but once it gets started -- once all the characters are poised for action -- it totally kicks ass. Donaldson has lost none of his gifts for horrific revelation, and his mythology gets richer and more wondrous all the time.

As has been said by others, "The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant" would be a movie series to end all fantasy-based epics...but I'm afraid that Covenant himself would be the first stumbling block, especially since he spends much of his time being a hateful bastard, and during his first few minutes in the magical fantasy world he commits a vicious act that he pays for for the rest of his life...but the consequences are not ones which audiences in a theater would stick around for.

5 comments:

Kimber said...

White Gold Wielder, all the way! I'm so glad to find one other person who reads these books. I haven't looked at them in years - you're inspiring me to go on a hunt at the Kink library and see what they have...

Muffy St. Bernard said...

We're the sick ones, Kim. And there aren't too many sick people left, I guess, because this final series isn't much of a financial success.

If you plan on reading the last series, you'll really need to go back and re-read the first two...the publishers claim that the books stand alone, but they're telling an awful lie!

Muffy St. Bernard said...

PS: And guess how the Cavewrights were described in the chapter I read last night? "Spatulate." Bad words die hard.

jj said...

And there aren't too many sick people left

What are you talking about?

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stephen_R._Donaldson#The_Chronicles_of_Thomas_Covenant.2C_the_Unbeliever

tells me he is one of the great successes in the fantasy genre. :)

Muffy St. Bernard said...

He certainly had major success with the first two "Thomas Covenant" trilogies, but this final series isn't living up to expectations.

I understand "Fatal Revenant" hit the bestseller list, but it sounds as though he and his publisher thought it would do better. They didn't even release the first book as a paperback, and apparently they are back-pedalling about audiobooks and e-books.

I think the series requires too much of an investment from its readers, and Donaldson's sludgy, ugly style and content probably doesn't appeal to those fantasy fans who adore quick pulp.

20 years may have been too long to wait for this sequel.