Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Review Preview: Fatal Revenant (Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant) by Stephen R. Donaldson

Linden Avery is not having a good time. Her adopted son Jeremiah has been kidnapped by Roger Covenant, the sinister son of her long-dead friend Thomas Covenant; he's also managed to kidnap his psychotic mother Joan. Shot down in a blaze of glory, all four have ended up in The Land, a fantastic place where Linden helped triumph over the powers of evil many years ago.

The Land is a mess. It's thousands of years after Linden's last visit and things have gone downhill--steeply downhill. The Haruchai who once served the Lords (scholars and defenders of the Earthpower and the Land itself) now call themselves the Masters and forbid teaching any of the lore that the Lords knew; all use of Earthpower is considered dangerous and ruthlessly suppressed as well. A haze called Kevin's Dirt even steals the "health sense" that all natives of the Land once took for granted. And the white gold possessed by Joan Covenant is spewing out wild magic, creating caesures (temporal cyclones) that destroy everything in their path.

To make things worse, Lord Foul is making another bid to break the Arch of Time and escape imprisonment. With Jeremiah in his power, he may actually be able to do it this time.

That's what happened in the last book.

In Fatal Revenant, Stephen R. Donaldson kicks the story into high gear. Linden has recovered the Staff of Law she created at the end of the Second Chronicles, just in time for Covenant and Jeremiah to catch up with them at Revelstone (the ancient home of the Lords of the Land). But Covenant is not the way she remembers him; he is cold, even cruel, and commands her not to touch him or Jeremiah lest she break the fragile magic keeping them substantial and present to her.

They induce her to follow them on a dangerous expedition, where Linden gains some understanding at a terrible price--and conceives a terrible purpose. Although she encounters figures from the Land's ancient past and learns much about the Land's history, this knowledge does not answer her most urgent needs. Instead, she sets out to reach the Hills of Andelain, where she hopes to find her answers... as well as an object that will let her master two antithetical magics at once. But what will she do with that much power? Can her friends and allies trust her, or will her choices damn the Land once and for all?

Donaldson sets the stakes higher in this part of the Last Chronicles, a four-part series which wraps up the story of Thomas Covenant. Linden takes a dark turn, with heartbreak and anguish conspiring to break her will, not to mention the array of enemies and obstacles in her path. From an insane Elohim (something like an archangel) named Kastenessen to a treacherous ally named Esmer to the suspicion of the Masters to a murderous Giant to... well, the list goes on and on, but Linden has far more enemies than allies this time around. And that isn't even mentioning the Insequent, a magical and enigmatic people who confound the Elohim and have their own designs on the Land.

The language used may daunt readers, in that Donaldson brings heavy-duty vocabulary into play here; the result is that some points of the story feel particularly opaque, leaving the reader in the dark as to characters' situation. This isn't a negative, but rather a characteristic of Donaldson's work (especially in writing Covenant). Anyone who can't ace the SAT after reading these books isn't trying hard enough.

Does it measure up to a trilogy that's become a fantasy landmark (no pun intended)? It sure does. Though perhaps not ideal for casual "skimmers" of fantasy, those who enjoy seeing issues of deep philosophy interwoven with magic and strange creatures will find much to love.

Read my full review October 1 on the SFRevu website! And go here to buy Fatal Revenant on Amazon.

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