This is going to be an unpleasant review to write. I have long counted Stephen Donaldson amongst my all time favorite authors having read the first six novels in his Thomas Covenant series as a youngster and fallen in love with them completely. The first and second chronicles are landmark achievements in fantasy literature. Unique in their inventiveness with utterly compelling characterization and a real flair for blow-your-mind type dramatic moments. Who will ever forget that first time Covenant says the word “Nom”? Who will ever forget Saltheart Foamfollower’s final moments? Bannor. Pitchwife. Honniscrave. Great, great characters. Great books. I’ve read and reread them over the years and my love and respect for the work remains as strong as ever.
That said, I find myself struggling with The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant in the same way most of his characters often struggle with their emotions. It’s not easy reading because a precedent for excellence has been set and it’s very, very difficult to admit that these new books are not living up to it. In the case of the latest offering, Against All Things Ending, just recently published, there is no longer any way to deny the obvious. The Last Chronicles not only does not live up to it’s predecessors but it just plain bad writing.
It kills me to say it but the book is awful. Nearly unreadable.
There are a lot of reasons for this. First and foremost is the weak nature of the character of Linden Avery who is central to the story, obviously. To be honest, she has always been a weak, two dimensional character but, in the case of the Second Chronicles, it was easily covered up by the presence of Covenant and any number of fascinating secondary characters to support her and carry the story. Here, in these Last Chronicles, there are no other characters worthy of our attention and the action itself is rather poorly assembled and less than compelling which leaves a lot of the weight of the story on her very fragile shoulders. As she proclaims to herself over and over in the book, she’s just not up to it.
The constant angst, indecision, fretting and moaning and complete inability to act. The constant repetition of phrases and imagery that leads to little in the way of meaning or revelation. The character of Linden Avery and her overwhelming introspective, yet stagnant, emotiveness is like a monstrous dead weight that drags the work down and makes the experience of reading the novel almost painful.
That and the hideously slow pace Donaldson sets for the action have made for some of the more unpleasant reading you’re going to find out there. For example, the first 150 pages of the book take place in one spot with the characters basically standing around talking and fretting about what to do, embroiled in repetitively expressed thought and emotion. In fact, there is so much time wasted in the story with people debating what to do, while the World is ending mind you, the novel could easily be 300 pages shorter than what it is and not lose a single thing. I’m not exaggerating about this. I wonder if there was any editorial control exerted whatsoever at Putnam on this work. I really do. It’s so bloatedly over-indulgent.
The action does pick up at a certain point but, when it does, it seems like perfunctory action for the sake of it. I doesn’t advance the story that much and the graphic deaths of several main characters sort of lose their import as they happen all at once. Certain revelations seem rather contrived and one has to question the emphasis placed on some characters earlier in the series given the casual manner they are erased. None of it, to this point, seems to fit together very nicely and I find myself scratching my head a bit about the overall direction of the story.
Against All Things Ending is the third book in a series of four with the final novel, The Last Dark, set to conclude the Last Chronicles. I find myself wondering, in that case, if this current book was even necessary then and the entire series could have been shortened to a three novel arc like the previous Chronicles.
In the end, I have to ask the most horrible question of all. Was this a series simply written for the money, an effort by Donaldson and his publishers to cash in on a popular character and a series that has sold in the millions over the years when, as it seems, there really was no further story to tell? Should the end of White Gold Wielder have been the end, as was intended?
Perhaps Thomas Covenant should have stayed dead.