Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Review: Against All Things Ending

Against All Things Ending, by Stephen R. Donaldson
Paperback: 575 pages (uncorrected proof ARC)
Publisher: Putnam, ©2010
ISBN: 978-0-399-15678-6
Copy: provided by Putnam

Blurb: Thomas Covenant is alive again, restored to his mortal body by the unimaginable combined force of his own white gold ring, Linden Avery's Staff of Law, and the ancient dagger called High Lord Loric's krill. His resurrection is Linden's defiant act of love, despite warnings from mortals and immortals that unleashing this much power would destroy the world. She brought his spirit back from its prison in the Arch of Time, and revived his slain body, so that Covenant lies whole on the cool grass, and the world seems at peace. But the truth is inescapable: The thunderclap of power has awakened the Worm of the World's End, and all of them, and the Land itself, are forfeit to its devouring. If they have any chance to save the Land, it will come from unlikely sources - including the mysterious boy Jeremiah, Linden's adopted son, whose secrets are only beginning to come to light.

While this review won't be seeing the light of day until the release date of Against All Things Ending, it must be composed now (i.e. 8/14/2010), lest all that swirls in my mind be lost in the interim.

Any of Donaldson's multiple Chronicles of Thomas Covenant can be characterised as being garbed in the viscera of human emotion. The tale brings the reader into such intimate acquaintance with loss, sorrow, rage, self-doubt, self-loathing, self-condemnation and, ultimately, despair, that the sensation of drowning amidst one's own stunned silence prevails. The same is true with Against All Things Ending.

Donaldson's use of archaic terms throughout the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant are well known. Aside from driving the reader to the dictionary, the terms used also provide a meaning unattainable with more modern equivalents. Donaldson also employs a dynamic use of simile. In fact, the only element to Donaldson's style that has ever failed to satisfy, and it is a recurring one, is excessive description during periods of travel which undermines the overall sense of the novel's pace.

The tale unfolds through five main, and sequential, acts. In labelling them, according to their setting, they are: Andelain, Gravin Threndor (Mount Thunder), the Spoiled Plains (where the group splits), Muirwin Delenoth (a region south of Kurash Qwellinir, i.e. the Shattered Hills, which ring Foul's Creche - Avery's party) and Ridjeck Thome (the proper name for Foul's Creche - Covenant's party). Those who love and defend the Land are confronted by numerous enemies and an impending apocalypse. Throughout this tale, lives are lost, choices are made and consequences are borne, willingly or not.

Throughout, Linden Avery and Thomas Covenant are their typical selves. Surely, there has been some dislike of the two characters over time. However, it seems most likely that the antipathy for the characters stems from the characters' penchant for: 1) unintentional destruction and damage, 2) subsequent self-doubt and loathing and, 3) the emotional or mental paralysis suffered by the character, consequently. Such circumstances can be disheartening and drive one to look away when descried in another. Perhaps because it brings on a disturbing sense of discomfort - reminding us of similar events we have suffered. No sane person wants to go there ever again.

And, so, there are many who criticize Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant as being rather bleak. The works are are not intrinsically so as the author has demonstrated throughout why nothing is "too bleak." Ranyhyn are still Ranyhyn - noble. Giants are still Giants - cheerful and faithful. Haruchai are still Haruchai - ready and able. For all of the dreariness a reader may encounter in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the author does provide, in extremely subtle ways, salvific relief.

By way of example, Linden Avery has a conversation with Stave, a Haruchai by birth and former Master. Linden asks why the Masters distrust her as though she were a second Kevin Landwaster. She asks what is so similar between the two of them. Stave responds by saying, "If." Linden asks for elaboration and gets it - in spades.
"If, Chosen. That you share with High Lord Kevin Landwaster, who is now forgiven by his sires. If.

Summoned to a parley with or concerning the Demondim, if he had not sent his friends and fellow Lords in his stead. Concerned and grieving for your son, if you had heeded Anele's desire for the Sunstone. You believe that you might have acted otherwise, and that you are culpable for your failure to do so. Thus you open your heart to despair, as High Lord Kevin did also."
Stave continues,
"Chosen, you have rightly charged the Masters with arrogance. They have deemed themselves wise enough, and worthy, to prejudge the use which the folk of the Land would make of their knowledge. After his own fashion, Kevin Landwaster was similarly arrogant. In his damning if, he neglected to consider that his friends and fellow Lords selected their own path. He commanded none of these to assume his place. Indeed, many among the Council valued his wisdom when he declined to hazard his own vast lore and the Staff of Law in a perilous vesture [perhaps author meant 'venture']. Yet those voices he did not hear. Arrogating to himself responsibility for the fate of those who fell, he demeaned them - and failed to perceive Corruption clearly. Faulting himself for error rather than Corruption for treachery, he was self-misled to the Ritual of Desecration, and could not turn aside.

So it is with you."
In an attempt to drive the point home, inexorably, Stave concludes his comparison of Linden Avery to Kevin Landwaster:
...you demean all who stand with you by believing that there can be no other fault than yours, and that no fault of yours can be condoned. Doing so, 'You tread paths prepared for you by Fangthane's malice,' as Manethrall Mahrtiir has said. Thus you emulate High Lord Kevin.

In your present state, Chosen, Desecration lies ahead of you. It does not crowd at your back.
Avery, as is her wont, has assumed "the weight of the world" upon herself. Stave explains that Avery has, at her side, Ranyhyn, Giants and Haruchai that are ready, willing and able. Stave asserts that it is futile, and the road to despair, for Avery to assume total responsibility for defending the Land and battling it's enemies. It is in this way, that Stave provides 'salvific relief' - by emphasizing that no one need necessarily be alone with their burdens.

Since the 1980's, I have read and enjoyed the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Within, there lies a deep, rich and well disguised symbolism that is extremely relevant to the conduct and endurance of an individual life. They are stories that offer the reader maimed and loathsome lepers, both literally and figuratively, which demonstrate the virtues of perseverance and resolve, while disdaining apathy, self-abasement and despair. It boldly and confidently delivers the message that nothing, and no one, is irredeemable or unforgivable.

Against All Things Ending, as with any other Chronicle of Thomas Covenant, does more than merely entertain. It is a story which explores the width, breadth and depth of the concept of free-will, especially how to recognize it's pitfalls and gracefully accept it's consequences.

Must Read


Anonymous said...

The past two weeks or so till the monthly direct-deposit comes in have been really dicey; I've been reading these since the publication of LORD FOUL'S BANE. Will be buying next week. I appreciate that you point out what's rich about aspects of the Covenant saga that some -- who, I suspect, like their fantasy easy and/or based on RPGs -- decry. The emotional ride is why they continue to haunt me. They operate on a level that has more in common, perhaps, with Euripides than with most fantasy writing. Vicarious sharing of the passions requires a heightening of language as well as a raising of the emotional stakes...thank you for this excellent review. Can't wait!

Eric Dale Eubanks

Michael Barron said...

I definitely want to read these now. Are they books you should read in order?

PeterWilliam said...

@ Eric - I couldn't agree more. It was the primal sense that Donaldson wrote with that first lured me into fantasy fiction.

@ Michael - I would definitely recommend reading them in order. The first six books can now be purchased in omnibus format.

Conor said...

Against All Things Ending has such an awesome cover. I want to read it now. Like right now.

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