Donaldson’s “Against All Things Ending” is depressing, yet hopeful

Stephen R. Donaldson‘s AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING is the ninth novel in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, and as such it has a huge backstory that is reminiscent of Robert Jordan‘s “Wheel of Time” series, yet has much more emotional weight and heft than Jordan’s epic.  This is a book that’s hopeful, yet that hope arises from extreme situations and a great many desperation moves; it’s also a book that if you haven’t read any of the previous eight novels that’s going to be very difficult to understand.

Thomas Covenant’s story started in our world, where he was a leper (having Hansen’s disease).  He’d been married and had a son but his wife, Joan, could not handle her husband’s leprosy and divorced him, taking their infant son, Roger, with them.  Covenant’s life took an immediate and drastic downturn, as you might expect, and he ended up in the Land — a completely different world than ours, where magic works, and the different types of people have different abilities that arise partly from learning, partly from skill, and mostly from a lot of faith.  Covenant couldn’t really believe in the Land (thus his main title, the Unbeliever), but ended up saving it anyway, going from an anti-hero to a full-fledged hero in the course of the first three books.

Covenant met up with his lover, Linden Avery, in the Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant; she is a physician from our world, a healer, and has dedicated her life to healing minds as well as bodies.    They had many adventures before Covenant ended up dying near the end of the sixth book, WHITE GOLD WIELDER; Avery ended up going back to our Earth, alone.

By the time the Last Chronicles started (first book of that being THE RUNES OF THE EARTH), she’d adopted a son, Jeremiah, who is severely disabled and autistic.   She’s become an outstanding doctor who is good to everyone, not because she’s a “goody-goody,” but because she’s seen her own inner darkness and understands how devastating it can be to get lost within yourself.  Avery had adventures throughout the Land in the first two books of the Last Chronicles, culminating at the end of FATAL REVENANT by doing the impossible: reincarnating Thomas Covenant, which allows the Worm of the Earth to run free as the Arch of Time has been broken.

So the start of AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING is this: Covenant’s alive, but he isn’t right.  His mind can only contain some of what he’s experienced after he died; he’d been part of the Arch of Time, and now has a new title to deal with (along with all his others), Timewarden.  He can’t remember everything he knew, but all the memories he does have are crushing, and he tends to get lost within his own thoughts rather than be able to deal with Avery or any of her companions.   Avery feels terrible about what she’s done, which causes her to fall prey to her own despair, which leads to various and sundry adventures where her mind feels more flayed than her exhausted body could ever be.

The adventures these two go through, along with their companions, which include some Ramen (those who tend the great wild horses, but do not ride them), Giants (great-hearted, huge souls who love to laugh and sing), a Stonedowner or two, and a gentle-hearted madman, are variously exhausting, exhilarating, or nearly incomprehensible.  But the thoughts of Avery and Covenant are remarkably congruent; these are people who have found ways to forge power out of guilt, loss and suffering.  (Covenant, in fact, believes it is impossible for an innocent person to be able to do anything at all, because once someone moves along his path of life, he’s no longer innocent.)

Donaldson’s grasp of language, as always, is stellar.  He uses words I rarely see, including “surquedry” and “reification,” for dramatic effect, and is definitely a writer who will only use the best word — not any word that might fit, but the absolute best word available, no matter how archaic the usage — so you want to read this man if only to study how he uses language so effectively.

But the main reason you want to read any of the Thomas Covenant epic series is because of how well Donaldson understands the human mind.  We all have things in our past we can’t stand about ourselves; the wise person accepts these things (he doesn’t have to like them, mind you; he merely has to accept them) and uses what knowledge he’s gained from them to beneficial effect, in effect marrying wisdom, intelligence and guilt into one potent package.  Donaldson does not accept that bad things must make everyone evil; he believes anyone can change, and he certainly seems to understand that some people won’t change no matter what happens to them — it’s only those (mostly represented by the Haruchai, they who were the Bloodguard in the first three books, and now make up the Masters in the last three) that Covenant worries about, because they have enough knowledge to be dangerous to themselves, yet not enough wisdom to get past the horrors they know in order to make good and positive choices.

The upshot of this particular novel — that Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery must fight against the evil Kastenessen, who actively serves Lord Foul the Despiser (analogue: Satan), along with Joan and Roger Covenant (Thomas Covenant’s ex-wife and son; Joan is crazy and doesn’t do harm on purpose but is powerful in and of herself, while Roger is sane but does evil willingly, purposefully, so in the end he’ll have power and control), and try to find something, anything, that will keep the Worm of the Earth from devouring everything in its path — is that without guilt, there’s no way to choose anything that’s beneficial.  And without wisdom, guilt is irrelevant.

In other words, if you are somehow expecting light reading out of any of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, you are beyond deluded.  But if you give this book time — about sixty pages was what I needed to get back with the story (those first sixty pages though were awful to drag through, not through any fault of Donaldson’s — it’s just that the story is so huge!) — and if you have the mindset that you want to see what’s going on and listen to the philosophical arguments for and against guilt, and for and against wisdom, along with some diverting humor from the Giants and from one of the Insequent, Ardent, who has become an unexpected ally (the Insequent are a magical race who don’t live sequentially, or at least not sequentially the way we’d see it), you will enjoy this book.

This book’s grade is going to be split into two parts.

Language, Style, Characterization, and Plot: A+ — couldn’t be any better.

Understanding of what’s going on: B+ — it took me sixty pages to get involved in the story because it’s a huge canvas, plus it’s a philosophical journey that reflects on the nature of evil and how sometimes only by making a bad choice can you do something good with your life and help others.

I highly recommend this novel to all who love epic fantasy, who have read any of the previous Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, or who love philosophy as much as they love fantasy.  But if you haven’t read any of the previous novels, I suggest you start with THE RUNES OF THE EARTH, then read the previous six books, then go on with FATAL REVENANT.  (This is partly because FATAL REVENANT skips around a great deal in time and if you don’t know anything about the first six books in the series, you have no chance to understand anything.)

As for me, I plan on waiting avidly for the final, and concluding, book in the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, THE LAST DARK, which is due out in 2013.  (Write fast, Mr. Donaldson!)

Reviewed by Barb

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