Monday, February 18, 2008

Lisa's Take - Thomas Covenant Book 1: Lord Foul's Bane (Stephen R. Donaldson)

I tried SO hard on this book - really I did. I tore and crawled and kicked my way through 380 pages of it, leaving my knuckles bloodied and my brain numbed - but I just couldn't do it. I might have been able to persevere but for the fateful release of Robin Hobb's newest book... but with that glistening gem begging me to read it, knowing it would go down smooth and wonderful and interesting and not hackneyed or contrived... I just couldn't keep going with Thomas Covenant. After nigh-on 400 pages, less than 100 pages from the end, I threw in the towel and abandoned it.

What a relief.

I don't even know where to being in the list of Things That Put Me Off This Book. The original title of this list involved the word "hate," but I changed it in deference to all of the people who have insisted that T.C. is amazing - I just don't have the heart to use the H word in the light of their glowing adoration. But... it was just so awful, and so bad, and so useless. I may have exaggerated about the bloody knuckles, but the brain-numbing was entirely true. I was just so frustrated and sick of this book, I was at my wit's end.

The setting: Thomas Covenant is a leper. He had a golden life before - a successful author and family man - then he got sick and his wife took their son and left him. The start of the book is explaining this scenario, and expounding upon Covenant's ostracism from society. "Leper, outcast, unclean" is drilled into the reader's head here, and will continue to be for the rest of the book - I assure you. Then one day as Covenant is walking into town, he gets hit by a car. Would that he had just died there - but alas he suddenly finds himself in a fantasy dream world. This start was at least a little promising.

Unfortunately, from there the book degrades into Trite Overdone Epic Fantasy. Turns out Covenant is related to a historical hero in this new world, owed to the fact that he has half a hand. Oh, and also because he has a Magic Ring (definitely not the One Ring. Definitely.). He's discovered by the townspeople and they take it upon themselves to get him to The Revelstone (not Rivendell, I promise) so that a Quest (not Fellowship) can be formed to go the Mt Thunder (not Mt Doom) and foil the evil plans of Lord Foul (not Sauron) who hopes to destroy the land. You might begin to get an idea of my first real problem with this book. Don't even get me started on the parallels to Ring Wraiths, Ents, Riders of Rohan or whole other slew of minutiae.

Now, don't get me wrong - flagrant ripping off of one of the foundations of the fantasy world is bound to happen. There will always be ties in fantasy to the pioneers of the field, though this is a particularly glaring example. In spite of the glaring connections to Tolkien, I at first held out hope that the book would be good. The opening of the book was at least a bit compelling, and the idea of Thomas Covenant not as a reluctant hero, but as an "absolutely viciously opposed to the whole idea and entirely incredulous hero" had some serious promise. Unfortunately, Donaldson was a lot more preoccupied with this grand fantasy world that he'd obviously been planning meticulously and mulling over for years, than actual character development. Who needs characterizations when you have all sorts of exotic words and magical plants to talk about?

I've actually got two character development issues. The first is the secondary characters (because I feel like doing seconds first, so there). With the exception of 2 or 3 of the secondaries... they all blur together. They have no individual personalities or defining traits, or anything at all to make them interesting and unique. Once The Quest was formed, I spent pretty much the whole time going "wait, who was that again? I know he's old... and magical... um..." It was not a good thing. The second character issue is Covenant himself. His internal struggle with his self-image could be interesting, but... I'm not sure. It's just not well done. A lot of the thought paths the character follows don't make sense in any light, even considering that he has no self-worth. His approach to self-appraisal doesn't change or develop in spite of what's happening in the book, and he has absolutely zero motivation to be going along with the Grand Historic Events that he's being dragged through, so everything just doesn't really make much sense in the end. It's frustrating to see what could be such an entertaining premise be executed so poorly.

Those are all the major issues I had with the book, but I did have a few other knit picks that really drove me nuts. Ever since I read "The Blade Itself" I've noticed myself getting hung up on things like this more and more often. Honestly, I don't know if it's a -bad- thing, per se, because if I'm going to review with a critical eye, I need to point to specific instances. Still, some of them edge towards the "really bad" end of the spectrum, rather than the "pet peeve" end, so they bear mentioning.

The most glaring item is the fact that the book is made up entirely of the absolute more boring, bland, dull prose you can imagine. I don't think there's a single interesting word in the thing, except for the ones that Donaldson made up to go with his fantasy world, and all of those are contrived. The next best thing caveats nicely.... any time you're writing a book riddled with enough esoteric high fantasy pulled-out-your-rear words that you feel the need to create a glossary - just don't. Glossaries are just SO annoyingly useless. How about instead you describe things meaningfully and create a rich world that's memorable, rather than one that has to be constantly defined? Finally, tied in again with uninteresting prose... if you're going to have you character curse all the time, come up with something more imaginative than "hellfire." I kid you not, there was one 3-page section where Covenant said "hellfire" "with great emotion" over 10 times. You have no idea how hard I had to try not to start keeping a tally. It was really, really bad.

So - I actually left this review sitting for a while, thinking I might have the willpower to go back after a break and try to finish the book. As it turns out: I didn't. I don't plan to. I have absolutely zero interest in reading any of the other Thomas Covenant books. I've been told that some of Donaldson's other work is really great, so maybe I'll try that here in a year or three once I've had a chance to recover from this one.


Anonymous said...

OK, have to chip in here.

I once said to someone that there are two kinds of Covenant readers: the ones who throw the book against the wall after Chapter 6 and then pick it back up again, complaining all the way, and those who throw the book against the wall and then leave it there.

I'm one of the first; you lasted more chapters than most of the category, but you're of the second.

When critiquing a book for too much Tolkien devotion, you have to handicap it a bit for time. Lord Foul's Bane was published by Lester del Rey in the early 80s as one of the first fantasy novels to follow up on the popularity of LOTR. Most of the fantasy novels of the day slavishly followed Tolkien's formula; Donaldson's is actually unique among them because he simultaneously embodies and subverts the formula. And because IMHO Lord Foul is a much more interesting villain than Sauron ever was. :-)

I've now read the first two trilogies and the first of the third; of those seven books, I've liked four. (In case you're curious, they're Illearth War (#2), Power that Preserves (#3), White Gold Wielder (#6) and Runes of the Earth (#7), of which those last two by FAR the best. It's a shame that #4 and #5 are by far the worst...yes, worse than Lord Foul's Bane.

Donaldson is an ambitious writer; his successes are dazzling; his failures are dreadful. (I've read interviews where even he admits that some of the Second Chronicles books I mentioned didn't come out the way he wanted; he delayed writing this new trilogy a decade because he took honest stock of himself and realized that he wasn't yet qualified to write the story he wanted to tell.)

His strengths are the power his description eventually attains, to bring alive both wonders and horrors, the memorableness of the most important of the supporting cast, and the subtle, aggravating but fascinating psychology of Covenant himself. His weaknesses when a book of his isn't working are exactly those things, negated, as you yourself pointed out. :-) The prose becomes purple, the secondary characters boring, the POV character unbearable.

I won't try to convince you to read more of him. But I don't regret reading him a bit--and I have the latest of the new series waiting for me on my shelf, and I think the day's not far off when I'll take it down.

JD said...

I can't help but blame myself for this, as I truly enjoyed these books when I was... er... 12 or 13. I read the whole first trilogy and was enthralled. I then promptly forget who the author was, or what the books were called. A couples years ago I was like "White gold ring? Sweet! I loved this series" and bought the first trilogy. I read the first book and hated it.

That's not *entirely* true, as I thought the emotional impact of his early actions is strong and deserves mention. However! I still let Lisa read this, and I really should have know better. :)

I'd like to go on record as saying that his non-thomas-covenant work that I've read (A Man Rides Through & The Mirror Of Her Dreams) were quite good.

LisaBit said...

Woohoo! Cheers to Geoff for writing the longest and most reasoned reply to one of my book posts ever! Yay!

I can't remember if I mentioned it in the review or not (as it got pretty damn long) but I might consider going back and reading some of his other stuff, per JD's suggestion. I hate to disqualify an author based solely on his first book, especially when I've heard so many other good things about him.

>Most of the fantasy novels of the day slavishly followed Tolkien's formula;

This is a really interesting observation... it does a lot to explain a few other books I've read from the period. I had a name to put here, but it went out of my head as soon as I started typing.... ah well. But yeah, good info, thanks!