Stephen R. Donaldson’s “The Last Dark” Equals the End of the Thomas Covenant Series

 Stephen R. Donaldson’s THE LAST DARK is the tenth and final book of the Thomas Covenant series, which started way back in 1977 with LORD FOUL’S BANE. As such, it’s both the ending of a long-running epic series and the end of the third and final miniseries, “The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.”

And because of that, I’m going to review this in its entirety. There will be spoilers, so if you do not want your reading spoiled, please walk away right now — this is your final warning.

(Ready? Set? Go!)

At the end of AGAINST ALL THINGS ENDING (reviewed here), Thomas Covenant and his lover Linden Avery realized the Worm of the World’s End was on the move. The stars were blinking out, and the Sun did not rise due to the actions of the Worm. (That is one big, impressive Worm.)  And Linden had to take full responsibility for causing the Worm to reawaken and escape from underneath the One Tree, because if she’d not resurrected Thomas Covenant, the Worm would’ve stayed where it was.

Now, though, the Land is in desperate peril. Without the sun, nothing can grow. Aliantha, the “treasure berries” of the Land that will restore your health-sense along with filling your belly, are extremely scarce. Without the krill (a magical weapon), no one could see anything (as the fire Linden Avery raises from her Staff of Law is “fuligin,” or the darkest, densest black anyone’s ever seen; Donaldson is fond of obscure words, as I’ve said before), as no one wants to waste the wild magic raised from the white gold as a flashlight.

Why?

Well, the magic raised from white gold can “save or damn” as it pleases, meaning it’s capricious. Maybe you’ll get what you want, but you’ll abhor the way you do it — which perhaps is a mystical reason for why so much of THE LAST DARK and indeed all of the final four books in the “Last Chronicles” needs to travel by caesures, a hole in time that will take you somewhere else, but rips up the Land and forest and everything else in the process.

So yes, the white gold combined with the krill can raise a caesure. But you probably won’t like what you’ll have to do once you come out of it…which both Linden and Thomas Covenant find out over and over again.

In the midst of all of their suffering is Linden’s fifteen-year-old adopted son, Jeremiah. He was and is autistic, and until recently was locked inside his mind in a dissociative state. The only way he could impose any part of himself on reality was to build things, whether it was with Legos, Lincoln Logs, or anything else. And now, his building talents are needed because someone has to keep the stars from winking out . . . and as the stars are the physical manifestations of the Elohim, a deeply magical and also deeply alien race, he has to persuade them that it’s in their best interests to go into this structure he’s creating before they all die and the world cannot be saved. (Because surely, one of the Elohim must be the Sun that shines upon the Land, even though it’s never stated.)

So we have Giants, both Swordmainnir and cooks, along for the ride. We have a few Ramen. We have a last conversation with the toughest and meanest Forestal of them all, Caerroil Wildwood. We see Stave the Haruchai, probably the best-loved character from the “Last Chronicles,” admit that he truly is Linden’s friend after all this time, and unbend enough to show that he has a sense of humor. (Yay!) We have many, many loose ends wrapped up, we get a last, desperate confrontation with the cavewights (who defend Lord Foul’s demense, otherwise known as Kiril Threndor), we get an uneasy alliance with the Lurker (a strange, serpentine creature who seems to dwell in every available swamp in the Land) and the small beings who serve it, the Feroce, we see a Raver unmade (Double yay!), we see death and dismemberment and destruction aplenty…

But the best moment of THE LAST DARK is the quietest.

Finally, finally, finally we see Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery get married. After all this time, and all this travail, with the world about to end and seemingly no way out, they feel it’s about time to “put a ring on it.”

And because they do this one act of love, that makes Linden a rightful white-gold wielder and she’s suddenly even more powerful than before. (Trust me, she was more than powerful enough prior to this despite her self-distrust.) It also helps recharge Thomas Covenant on a primal level, and reminds him that he’s still a man with a man’s needs.

This is by far the best part of THE LAST DARK because it’s tremendously human. It shows the best part of humanity in full: our will to survive and to believe in love despite everything that’s gone against us.

Also, if you’ve read the previous nine books of the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, you know full well that Thomas Covenant did not start out as a sympathetic character at all. He was originally a full-on anti-hero. He actually raped a teenage girl, Lena, during LORD FOUL’S BANE, when he thought everything was a dream and nothing he did could hold any consequence. (Why his dreams were so dark and depressing is another story entirely.)

And that rape produced a young and damaged child, High Lord Elena, who Thomas Covenant meets during THE ILL-EARTH WAR. Elena is beautiful, brilliant, and determined, but she’s also heavily damaged and may be insane due to being raised by Lena, who definitely is insane. What Elena does causes both her and the Land great harm, even though she intended only good, and for a time her spirit is captured by Lord Foul (the personification of darkness and despair).

Then — and this was not an improvement — High Lord Elena ended up in the grasp of the ravenous She Who Must Not Be Named, who could be said to be a personification of the Goddess Kali in the worst possible mood. She Who Must Not Be Named believes no man is good, no man could ever be good, and that the women who believed in men are as bad as the men…in short, this particular being is doing much harm in the name of feminism.

(What you want to see in this, symbolically, is up to you of course. Me, I saw it as both interesting and irrelevant. Because again, She Who Must Not Be Named is insane.)

Here, Linden must confront She Who Must Not Be Named as a newly-married woman when the Land and everyone who lives upon it is about to go under, eaten by the Worm. Somehow, she must release High Lord Elena from an undeserved Hell. And somehow, Linden must prevail on her own, as Thomas Covenant has gone to fight Lord Foul while her son, Jeremiah, must discover his own talents.

As always with any work of Stephen R. Donaldson, the writing is stellar. There are a ton of words, but they have emotional power and resonance. The storytelling is first-rate. The characters are people you can love and hate, believe in fully, and want to succeed despite — or perhaps because of — their severe and unremitting flaws.

However — and this is a huge however — the book does not properly end.

Here I was, reading THE LAST DARK and enjoying my experience immensely. Then, all of a sudden, it’s time to defeat the Worm and re-establish the Arch of Time and allow all the Elohim to go back to what they truly are, which will allow the denizens of the Land to see the Sun again…

And we don’t see it.

Nope. Instead, we get a hastily scribbled epilogue that tells, but doesn’t show, that the Sun is about to rise again. The Land is saved, Thomas Covenant and Linden Avery are happy, and Jeremiah is the typical self-obsessed fifteen-year-old as he is quite uneasy with his parents’ public displays of affection (as Covenant has indeed become his adoptive father).

This is nicely anticlimactic. And it would’ve been fine, if we had just seen any of the battle to put the Worm back under the One Tree where it belongs, saw how Covenant, who was once known as the “Timewarden” as he helped hold up the Arch of Time after his death, rebuilt the Arch, or seen anything else of the labor it must’ve taken to allow the Sun to rise after the Land was almost destroyed.

But we don’t.

Up until the final fifty pages, this was an A-plus read. Everything I expected from a Donaldson novel was there. The copy-editing was stellar. The references to all of the previous nine books were there. The characters were as redeemed as they were ever going to be (not that they think of it as redemption, but I do). We saw love and hate and despair and disgust and achievements beyond all measure…

And then, we skipped to “The End.”

I’m sorry. That’s not acceptable. Most particularly in a novelist the caliber of Stephen R. Donaldson.

So instead of the A-plus I was about to give THE LAST DARK, I am going to give it an Incomplete, something I’ve never before done in the history of SBR. This book needed a proper ending. And it did not get it.

And when you’re completing a long-running series (see the very end of the Wheel of Time epic, started by Robert Jordan and completed by Brandon Sanderson), you have to show the end. Otherwise, it doesn’t make any sense.

Bottom line: This book did not end properly. I am not pleased with that. But everything until the final fifty pages was stellar.

Grade for THE LAST DARK: Incomplete (I).

— reviewed by Barb

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