Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Things Will Presumably Start Ending Eventually

I've said before that Stephen Donaldson is my favourite author.  Sometimes, though, I confess that it's hard to remember why.

Certainly, no-one is likely to ever recommend he be shortlisted for elegiac or poetic language, or even much in the way of variation (his Scrabble champion love for obscure words notwithstanding), and the Thomas Covenant novels are the most problematic in this regard.  Getting through an entire page can frequently be a chore; surviving a chapter could almost be considered as a new Olympic event.  Every character talks in ponderous, wooden tones, their dialogue so distant from human standards that the rare instances of American idioms are hideously jarring.

And when they're not talking, the characters are embarking on marathon sessions of cyclic self-reflection, turning the same mental stones over again and again, searching for solutions to insolvable problems.

Given all of that, then, it might seem strange that I even like Donaldson, much less consider him my favourite author.  Well, in truth I'd say Covenant novels to be far and away his weakest work (both The Gap Cycle and Mordant's Need are both massively superior and truly exceptional), but even within them, I find something unique.

The Covenant books are each two things simultaneously.  They're a description of a simply-sketched but well-considered fantasy world, one in which (unusually) the various peoples are differentiated from each other and ourselves not by pointy ears or blue skin but by the logical ramifications of their fundamental natures (the Haruchai in particular are one of my favourite fantasy races, despite looking and (nearly) sounding entirely human).  More than that, though, they're something I've never seen anywhere else: emotional and rational detective novels.  When Covenant or Linden work through their endless cycles of their existential crises, they're sifting through evidence.   Attempting to find a path through a metaphorical mine field of paradoxes and disaster. Where most fantasy novels (in a vague sense) concern themselves with attempting to gain power, to get to a place where power can be used, or to remove power from the opposition, the Covenant Chronicles deal with situations in which power is in ample supply, and the struggle is in resisting the temptation to use it.

This, as I've pointed out many times, is quite a Wagnerian idea (small wonder Donaldson adapted The Ring Cycle into The Gap Series), and one I find immensely attractive.

The main problem with Against All Things Ending, the third novel in the tetralogy which will apparently end Covenant's story (resulting in three series and ten novels overall) is that it demonstrates that whilst these ideas can be fascinating as part of a larger story, they make for a uniquely frustrating filler novel.

There is quite simply not enough here to justify almost eight hundred pages. Ironically, I can't express just how profound the problem is without referencing one of the book's few major spoilers, so from here on in, nothing is safe.

Everyone remember how the last book ended with Thomas Covenant being released from the Arch of Time, which led to both his resurrection and the awakening of the aptly (if unimaginatively) named Worm of the World's End?  I don't know about anyone else, but when giant indestructible realm-slaying hermaphrodites to show up, I expect things to go badly wrong.  This is something Lord Foul has spent four books over two series attempting to rouse, and it's finally happened.  Avengers assemble. Call in the cavalry. It's The End Of The Land As They Know It (And Linden Feels Personally Responsible).

In other words, it was a freaking awesome cliff-hanger, and I was desperate to know what would happen next.  The last thing I was expecting was for there to be almost no sign the Worm was awake whatsoever until the penultimate chapter.

This simply doesn't work.  For all Linden's self-flagellation; her companions' horror; and the general fainting and pearl-clutching of the populace at large, the final result is reminiscent of nothing so much as Holly in Red Dwarf: "Emergency!  There's an emergency going on!... It's still going on!"

Now imagine that for twenty-four chapters.

The uneven passage of time doesn't help matters.  Hardly two pages go by without someone insisting upon haste ("Covenant!  I love you!  But we only have two dozen chapters to save the Earth!"), and yet our heroes spend four chapters - fully one sixth of the book - in the clearing they reached at the conclusion to Fatal Revenant, arguing about every possible course of action and every conceivable permutation of events that might result.  OK, Donaldson; message received.  Actions have consequences.  Using power can remove choice.  We get it. You know why we get it?  Because Linden's use of power doomed the world at the end of the last book.

Repetition can be a powerful tool in fiction, and indeed has been used in these books to great effect in the past.  At a certain point, though, you're just flogging a dead horse, in a book large enough to have killed your equine victim in the first place.

When action does come, it admittedly works well.  The two books inside the novel can be summarised as "They capture Jeremiah" and "They free Jeremiah from the parasitic croyel", and both those tasks involve plenty of running, jumping, punching, and zapping, along with associated acid burns and exploding skulls, and sacrifices both noble and gut-wrenchingly wasteful.  Donaldson's method of writing action is strangely formal, but it does work, and the familiar themes of the fear of power and the impossibility of controlling violence certainly take on a new urgency when your resurrected lover's son has grafted an evil spirit's severed hand to his wrist and is using it to chuck lava at your face.

None of that dispels the feeling that all this could have been easily accomplished in half the time.  I understand the point Donaldson is making, that Linden's love for her catatonic adopted is so great she can't focus on saving the Land until he is safe. That's certainly interesting enough, and it both complements and contradicts her instinct for triage.  Donaldson is always very good at recognising, exploring and resolving such paradoxes, which is part of what makes these books so special.  Really, though, that's not a topic that needs so many pages either, and the proof of the books flab is in how much of the first 80% of it involves Linden and Covenant taking turns to become trapped within their own heads, forcing endless garment-rending and relief efforts.

Anyway, that's the diagnosis.  It's impossible to recommend treatment until Donaldson releases The Last Dark, at which point we'll be able to decide whether the Last Chronicles could happily have worked as a trilogy, or whether some chapter juggling and general trimming would have been a better plan.  Either way, Against... feels like part of the long and ignoble tradition of chessboard setting, and not even a particularly good example, either.  Shame.

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