Thursday, September 04, 2008

Thomas the Covenant..

As a much younger man I can remember distinctly the summer I discovered Thomas the Covenant.

It was the summer of 1978 and I'd taken a camping holiday to Port Grimaud on the south coast of France (just round the corner from St. Tropez). For reading material I'd taken the entire first two chronicles - all six books (everyone knows fantasy chronicles come in trilogy's - it's the 'Lord of the Rings effect')

At the time I was really "into" Dungeons and Dragons, so was reading quite a lot of fantasy for the background to various D&D campaigns that I was playing.. most of them were not up to much, and paled into insignificance next to Lord of the Rings (notable exceptions were the Shannara (click) series, the Grey Mouser (click) stories and Moorcock's Elric (click) & Runestaff (click) series) but I'd heard good things about Thomas the Covenant so decided to give it a go...

So there I am - a callow youth in the south of France - sitting on a beach looking at all those sights that one sees on a beach in the south of France (!) with six huge paperbacks in my bag (and no, I didn't take them all with me each day) and 12 days of very hot sun to look forward to.... and I absolutely loved them; I finished the lot before I came home.

Thomas the Covenant is not your usual fantasy hero - he doesn't wear a chain mail thong for one thing, his usual gear is walking boots jeans and a lumberjack shirt. In addition, he's also a leper.

In being transferred from the real world to a magic place called The Land, however, he faces all sorts of mental & physical challenges. Put simply Stephen Donaldson (the author) had imagined what your normal person would have gone through if they found themselves suddenly in a magical, separate, world. Covenant does human things, and has human responses... very different to most fantasy, but absolutely gripping..

As in all fantasy however, there is a bad guy who has various minions who fight for him (Ur-viles), and Covenant meets all kinds of people in the land who assist and fight with him... bottom line, they are my favourite fantasy books with the exception of Lord of the Rings. Monumental imagination.... hugely recommended... go and buy them now if you don't already have them they are here (click) and here (click).

Then a couple of years ago I head that Donaldson was writing for Thomas the Covenant again - another set of Chronicles ("The Last Chronicles") was on its way, four books this time (I believe).

As you can imagine - some excitement reigned in Steve the Wargamers house for a few weeks! I read the first one "The Runes of the Earth" (click) a year or so ago, and although it was mostly about one of his side kicks - Covenant only appeared once or twice - it was "OK". Measured against the magnificence of "The Illearth War" it paled slightly, I didn't race through it like I did those first six, but I would still have given it a 3 or 4 out of 5...

Not so this one I'm afraid - it happens rarely, but I've actually put this one down unfinished........

So what are the problems with it?

Donaldson has always written gritty fantasy - the mood is often dark, the psychological aspects feature heavily, people grapple with their inner demons, and don't generally have a whale of a time, or a lot of laughs.... but there is always some event, or storyline, to carry you through this - there seems to be a point. I can't see what the "point" is in this book so the constant questioning, struggling, and misery, becomes very wearying...

Which brings me on the second problem - Donaldson has always had highly imaginative and intelligent story lines. My problem with this book is that the level of complexity is such that I simply cannot understand what the hell is going on...! I'll pay Donaldson the courtesy of assuming that he does, but it just seems to me that the people in the book spend their entire time asking questions (that I can't understand why they ask), and not getting answers (which is a relief given I don't know why they asked the question they did in the first place)...

So when it came to Wednesday evening, and time to retire to the garage for a cigar and beer with some reading matter - and my reading choice was between this and the bits of the Sunday paper I hadn't read, and I took the paper you can guess the writing was on the wall for the book...

Huge disappointment, but life's too short - 1 out of 5 (for old times sake)


  1. Like you I really liked the first & Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant although I found the second to be a little dark and twisted.
    These, final chronicles I'm unsure about. I've read Runes and my biggest disappointment was finding I'd have to wait almost two years for the next installment, by which time I'd have forgotten most of the detail of the runes and thus find myself dazed and confused in the second sequel.

  2. I'm not much of a fantasy fan, but I know what you mean about revisiting old haunts in fiction. There's a sense of petty tragedy when an favourite doesn't measure up, a bit like meeting an old girlfriend to whom the years have not been kind.