Criticism is always hard to take, and I have great respect for Mr Donaldson as a writer. But this book is crushed to death under its own weight and it drags the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant down with it.
I review it not to point my presumptuous little finger at a great writer’s faults, but to try and understand why the book itself has lost me as a reader, so I can avoid this style of writing in my own fantasy novels. It’s particularly instructive for me, because I deal with similar themes in Second Sight, on a similar stage, with similar stakes (a world wracked with chaos; a female mage striving to save the essence of life; the world will end by her causing the conditions for the Apocalypse).
There’s a strange kind of resonance I suspect many authors have discovered. Similarities emerge between writers when they write about a similar theme. As you write, you discover the same entities and challenges. To put it another way, when you work with the stuff Tolkien delved into, you come face to face with the same Balrog, regardless of whether you’ve read Tolkien or not. It’s not a case of copying; it’s a case of working with the archetypes that lurk in the place writers find themselves in. So I appreciate that what Donaldson is attempting to work with here is extremely difficult: gods, mages with staggering powers, doom and apocalypse, and the meaningful culmination of story arcs from two trilogies with many potent characters.
The opening is definitely not designed to cater for mainstream readers. When you compare it to something like Mordant’s Need, it’s plain that Donaldson knows how to write a cracking opening scene, but has chosen not to. I know we are well into a series here, but I would have still made some kind of concession to engage readers. For pages and pages we must endure the introspective exposition that is Covenant’s trademark, his fractured, floundering grasp on reality, then Linden’s self-doubt, and piles of explanation.
As an author, I have a large working vocabulary, and there’s some academic enjoyment to be found in encountering obscure or archaic words. But the language and the overwrought specificity (see?) of this book comes across as pedantic. I know it’s partly a deliberate stylistic technique to establish continuity with the ‘otherworldliness’ of The Land, but if I read percipience one more time I am going to bleed from the eyeballs. Where oh where was the editor’s red pencil? Kill the darlings, they say.
This ‘ornate and heavyweight’ style makes it ‘different’ in a market of gritty, action-driven fantasy novels, but different is not necessarily a good thing. It makes the dialogue strange and off-key. I also struggled to understand the complicated web of conflicting motives, so Donaldson has to continually remind me what is at stake for each character, and then agonise over every possible ramification of their choices, which slows the pace even more. The strict rules of established behaviour lead to some painfully polite posturing. I wished Brand the Haruchai would say ‘fuck you’, just once, and kick the Manethrall’s head in, but instead he says ‘we will hear no more of this, Manethrall. You are unjust …’ This wooden dialogue just isn’t convincing from people who are all living rough: fighters, survivors, dirty smelly tough-as-nails folk, people who haven’t given up in an endless fight against ultimate evil.
When some action does eventually happen, the excitement is ruined by unrealistic stop-start pacing. The rising dread of She Who Can Not Be Named (Donaldson’s Balrog) is made ridiculous by being spoken to, answering in English, and then being ‘paused’ while the hero devises some get-out clause and thinks it through. The last time I was chased by a deadly snake, I didn’t have a moment to think of anything beyond run. The bane is supposed to represent a threat ten thousand times worse.
Donaldson is the master of writing about self-torment and hand-wringing indecision, but these qualities in a lead character become tiresome and eventually, unbearable. Even while running from death, characters pause to consider the outcome of everything they do, as if Donaldson is trying hard to explain everything in case we readers don’t get it. This makes me feel that he knows it’s too complicated. Actions should be obvious and believable, given the situation. Instead the characters look over their shoulders all the time and try to explain why they are doing what they are doing.
While the despair and self-doubt continues the style of the Covenant books, it has been elevated to such a degree by now that it overwhelms the story. There are hints that the author cares deeply about the inspirations of his characters and their morality, but overall the mood is just too serious and entirely humourless. Even the giants laugh at unfunny moments, deliberately controlled by the author, and they seem like miscast extras going hohoho in the background of a funeral scene. I know Donaldson is trying to do something with the symbolism and metaphors and deeper meanings, but because it’s so complicated and contrived I just don’t get any of it.
The second and third books of the final cycle interfere with my memory of the previous trilogies and break their spell. This ponderous tale needs to be cut down to size, to make it able to stand on its own as a story. In the attempt to forge the Unifying Conclusion of Great Significance with such meticulousness, Donaldson has throttled his own creation.
If he ever writes short standalone fantasy stories I’ll be right there in the front of the queue. But I’ve abandoned Covenant, Linden and The Land to collapse and annihilation. They do not seem worth saving.
As a fantasy author, what do I take away from this?
• When the seminal story is concluded (in this case, end of the first trilogy), end the series. Sequels can eventually suck the life out of the whole world. Be especially wary of writing the ‘last’ book that points back at the whole series and ties it up: you cannot make it better than it was and like analysing a joke, over-scrutiny of the original story leads to a dissipation of the magic.
• Readers don’t need reasons for everything; they should be able to puzzle motives out as things develop.
• Evocative writing is more engaging than prescriptive writing.
• Lead characters need to be decisive, so they move through the story.
• Extended internal dialogues are story killers.