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The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

I didn’t read the second Thomas Covenant trilogy when I was a teenager (see my ramblings about the first books here). I’m not sure why – perhaps I just didn’t have them, and couldn’t find anyone to lend them to me? Anyway, it wasn’t until I started rereading the series in preparation for The Runes of the Earth, the first volume of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant (and breathe) back in 2003 that I read the second trilogy. And, therefore, encountered Linden Avery, the series’ second main character.

Although the reader can have no doubt that we’re back in The Land, there’s quite a different feel to the Second Chronicles, and that largely comes down to Linden. Taking our ‘hero’, the man we’ve grown accustomed to over the first three books, and suddenly seeing him through the eyes of another, is a typically counter-intuitive way for Donaldson to start a new trilogy. Welcome back to the best-selling series! The guy you’ve been following, who the books are named after, is over there. He’s going to vanish for a bit, and quite often be a bit rude to our POV character. You got a problem with that? Oh, and all of the things you thought you knew about the setting, Donaldson’s remarkable and believable Land? Gone too. Things have changed around here. He’s still an anti-hero, to use a simplistic reductive term, but we’re reminded just how much of a bastard he can be as Linden starts to get closer to him. In fact, some of Covenant’s decisions in this trilogy (no spoilers) are, while to a certain extent logical and understandable, wrong. The entirety of The One Tree deals with Covenant’s quest to find an important thing (no spoilers, but it’s a tree) and the payoff is  a remarkable subversion of the reader’s expectations.

But it wouldn’t be Covenant if the reader didn’t spend at least half of the series thinking he was a bit of a tool, even during the extended bits where we’re following his point of view. Linden is far more sympathetic, which makes the series feel rather different to its predecessor, but it’s still a bravura piece of writing. The Land may have changed, but the old Donaldson magic is still there. Dense prose that slowly unfolds and depicts the landscape, conflicted characters who we aren’t sure we should trust but might have to, a reversion of the standards of fantasy (or at least the standards of the time). I have no idea how much of my positive response to the books comes from my knowledge of the tropes and sources that Donaldson is merrily trampling on, but there’s no doubt that these books had a massive impact on the genre. I know we say that a lot, often about anti-heroes and gritty ‘realism’, but these books are a world away from other stand-out redefinitions such as Elric (which I love, just to be clear).

It’s becoming increasingly hard to talk about these books without spoiling the early ones, and given that at least part of the point of this ramble is to convince you to pick up our soon-to-be-released eBooks of the whole series, I’ll probably stop before I accidentally give away the fact that a giant robot did it all (whoops!). I guess this blogpost is really aimed at those who, like me, read the first trilogy and never got around to the second. There’s always a little bit of a worry that an author revisits a hugely-popular series because they feel they have to, or for the money. I can be very confident of saying, though, that – for whatever reason Donaldson returned to The Land – the continuation of Covenant’s story is hugely fitting, and takes the series (and the reader) in directions that couldn’t be guessed, but always feel right. And when you reach the end of book six, where a giant robot saves the day (whoops!) you’ll be hit with the realisation that your time in the Land is over, and that one of the most amazing and brilliant fantasy series has come to an end.

For now . . .

The First and Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant 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.