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The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

I can’t remember how I first came across Stephen Donaldson’s writing. I have a vague image of my godmother – a wonderful woman who introduced me to SF/F and let me borrow anything I wanted from her shelves, and hang the inappropriate content – passing me something when I was about 11. Mordant’s Need, perhaps? Daughter of Regals? Anyway, I enjoyed it and on my next visit asked for some more. That’s how I first read Lord Foul’s Bane, when I was 12ish, an experience which has stayed with me ever since (can I just take a moment to say how upset that title still makes me? It’s so redolent of the type of fantasy the book really really isn’t. Covenant the Unbeliever would have worked for me, although I accept that it probably did its job and pulled in the fantasy readers. But more on naming later).

There really is nothing else in fantasy – or much in any genre of writing – that works for me quite so well as those opening pages. Perhaps it’s the fact that I was reading lots of more traditional things – Eddings etc – and had only just discovered Moorcock, or perhaps it’s because I was 12 and easily impressed, but the sheer un-fantasy of the opening still works for me. Those first three chapters, before our ‘hero’ reaches Kevin’s Watch (sigh, Kevin… reached that the first time round, thought ‘not ideal, but let’s soldier on’) were unlike anything else I knew, and even now I can’t think, off the top of my head, of an opening that digs into my skin so quickly. Perhaps I’m giving them more weight than they deserve, knowing as I do what comes next, but still – he’s a leper, in modern-day America. How brave an opening is that?

And then we reach the secondary fantasy world, and we have a bit of havering, and then the thing happens. I’m not going to say what thing, as this piece is largely written to draw people’s attention to our shiny new eBooks of the series, so I don’t want to spoil it, but that thing. Even at my tender age, I knew that what I was reading was hugely problematic. I hadn’t exactly warmed to Covenant (have I ever?), but that moment, as it was surely intended to, tinged the rest of the book. Yes, Covenant began to accept that perhaps he could make a difference, maybe, on a good day, if he felt like it was worth it. Maybe we even began to believe that he could win. But could we, the reader,  ever trust him again?

It’s hard to write about these books without giving lots away, so I’m going to burble on about the prose for a bit instead. Nobody writes like Donaldson. For those who don’t like him, that’s probably a good thing, but my god, if you let his prose get into your head you suddenly realise that you can’t get it out. It’s unmistakeable, dense, often elusive and often overwritten, in that clever he-knows-exactly-what-he’s-doing way that’s so hard to pull off. I suspect that I’d probably find a few more clunky bits if I reread now, but I have to say, when I last read these books – in 2003 – I was as drawn in to Doaldson’s word as I had been in 1990.

And oh, that world. The Land. Such a prosaic name, but it works this time. Suddenly you realise what Donaldson is doing. Lord Foul is the bad guy. Some bloke called Kevin is the hero of the past. A guy called Thomas will be the saviour of The Land’s future (maybe). It’s all intentional, it’s all done for a reason – to make the reader as unsure as Covenant about the reality of the situation he finds himself in. If it’s all in his head – and I’m still prepared to believe that it might be, even 9 books later – then of course he’d come up with this sort of name. Of course he’d come up with a world where he isn’t a leper. It’s harder to work out why he’d come up with a world that was so dangerous for him, but then Covenant isn’t exactly well-balanced . . .

This is all a bit wittery, for which I apologise, but the point is this: These are difficult, challenging books – in terms of plot, in terms of lead character, in terms of prose. There are all kinds of reasons not to like them. But there’s a reason why they became such a success, a reason why, even now, the last volume is one of the most anticipated fantasy books of the year. If you’ve never read them – or if you gave them a go and didn’t get very far – I urge you to try them again. We’re about to release the first six volumes in eBook for the first time in the UK, and they’re well worth getting. Or if, like me, you’re excited by the imminent arrival of the last volume, now’s the time to dip back in and remember where Covenant’s long journey started.

 

The First and Second Chronicles will be published as SF Gateway eBooks on 3rd October.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever
1. Lord Foul’s Bane
2. The Illearth War
3. The Power That Preserves

The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever
1. The Wounded Land
2. The One Tree
3. White Gold Wielder
 

You can read more about Stephen R Donaldson in his entry in The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, and find more of his books at his SF Gateway author page.