Sunday, April 8, 2012

The Runes of the Earth

The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever: Book One:
The Runes of the Earth
by Stephen R. Donaldson
Copyright 2004

Almost 20 years after he left us with Linden Avery weeping over the dead body of Thomas Covenat, Stephen R. Donaldson prepares us for one final excursion to The Land where Linden Avery will have to once again face her old foe, Lord Foul as Foul prepares to attack the Arch of Time and unleash himself into the universe, free to wreak havoc among the cosmos.

Linden has moved on with her life. She now operates a mental clinic she established. Among her patients is Joan Covenant, ex-wife of the late Thomas Covenant. Since his death, she has lived in a state of mental isolation, unreachable by any stimuli. The only thing that keeps her from engaging in maiming herself is the white gold wedding band she wears on a chain.

She has also adopted a son. The boy, Jeremiah that was one of the misfortunate children in the cult that kidnapped Thomas Covenant is now her ward. In the insanity of those final moments of Covenant’s life, the young boy thrust his hands into the fire. Linden was forced to amputate two of his fingers.

Jerimiah is as unreachable as Joan Covenant. He responds to no voice or command. His only interaction with the world is in his intricate constructs of Tinker Toys, KNex, and Legos. Now entering adolescence, Jeremiah spends his days building things.

Joan is shocked one evening when Roger Covenant – Thomas and Joan’s son – walks into Linden’s clinic to claim his mother. He has reached the age of 21. He’s ready to inherit his estate and take over the responsibility of seeing to his mother’s care. Linden tries to convince him of the folly of trying to take care of a woman in Joan’s condition outside of a medical facility. Roger is not to be dissuaded.

Joan arrives at home to care for Jeremiah. As she tries to relax, she receives a call, informing her that Roger Covenant has kidnapped his mother and killed hospital personnel in his escape. Linden goes to the hospital to deal with the chaos ensuing there. While she is there, Roger goes to her home, badly beats the babysitter, and kidnaps Jeremiah.

Linden and the police pursue Roger and his hostages into the woods to the area where Thomas Covenant died in order that Joan may live. Roger opens fire on police. Joan is struck by lightning just as police return fire. Roger is hit by their bullets. Linden, trying to save Jeremiah, takes a bullet to the chest. Roger, Joan, Jeremiah, and Linden disappear from the world.

Linden materializes in The Land, high atop Kevin’s Watch. She knows that thousands of hears have passed in The Land since she left ten years ago by her reckoning. She studies The Land, no longer under the sway of the Sunbane. But Linden can’t gauge the truth health of The Land because her healthsense – her ability to see the health and vitality of all living things in The Land – is blocked.

As she assesses her situation, she is set upon by a withered old man calling himself Anele. He is fleeing in terror from his pursuers he calls The Masters. As Linden tries to gain some knowledge from the paranoid and panicky man, a storm hits Kevin’s Watch. Anele and Linden flee down the steps from the watch and stand witness as a defining edifice of The Land comes crashing down in the storm.

They are then captured by the Masters Anele fears so much. Linden is horrified to see that they are actually Haruchai – the race of the Bloodguard who offered their fealty in defense of the lords and The Land. They are taken to Mithil Stonedown, the village that Thomas Covenant visited upon his arrival in The Land a millennia before. There, they are held prisoner.

Eventually, a Haruchai named Stave comes to talk to Linden. He recognizes her from the lore passed down from the Haruchai her journeyed with her. Linden’s only concern is the recovery of her son. She has no idea where he is or what Lord Foul’s plans for him. Stave tells her that they have captured Anele because he is strong with earthpower and the use of that lore is forbidden. Earthpower, Stave tells Linden, has always been the source of ill in the land. As the self proclaimed Masters of The Land, the Haruchai have forbidden its use. All of the lore of The Land has been withheld from the generations that followed Sunder and Hollian, the two Stonedowners who were left with the Staff of Law to banish the Sunbane and restore the earth to health.

Linden is later visited by a young stonedowner named Liand. Linden tells Liand of how The Land used to be and how people used its lore to improve their own lives and maintain the vitality of The Land.

When a storm hits the village, Linden seizes her chance to escape. She takes with her Anele, to whom she has promised to care for. They flee south into the mountains. As they battle the storm, Anele stops and turns to her. He speaks to her in the voice of Lord Foul. He tells her that she is his tool and he wants to help her achieve his ends. He guides her to hurtloom – the sand that contains healing power – so that she might restore herself. Foul has Jeremiah with him. He tells her that the Haruchai unwittingly serve his ends. Anele serves his ends, and she will serve his ends. Plans have been put into motion to shatter the Arch of Time.

As Linden starts to flee again, the young stonedowner, Liand, catches up with her and offers to join her. He wants to learn more about earthpower. As they seek shelter from the unnatural storm that is attacking them, they are discovered by Stave. Stave tells them that he is there to capture Anele and bring him back, but there is a pack of Kresh – giant wolves – on his heels. He tells them to prepare to fight.

The odds seem overwhelming with dozens of wolves the size of horses descending upon them. From behind them come a group of wiry, agile people armed with garrotes. With their help, Stave is able to drive off the Kresh.

Those that have come to Linden’s aid are the Ramen – caretakers of the great horses of The Land known as Ranyhyn. They take Linden and the others to the Verge of Wandering – a valley in the southern mountains they visit infrequently to check on the status of The Land. It has been many thousands of years since the Ranyhyn and the Ramen vacated the Plains of Ra and fled The Land since the coming of the Sunbane.

Anele is entranced with the stone in the valley and is able to use it to tell Linden how he lost his birthright. Anele is the son of Sunder and Hollian. When Hollian’s life was restored by the Forrestal, her unborn baby was imbued with unsurpassed earthpower that has sustained his life all these years. His birthright was the Staff of Law which was fashioned by Covenant to replace the old staff with which the old lords wielded earthpower. But one day, after venturing out of his cave for food, he returned to find the staff gone. He has spent the ensuing millennia searching for it, insane with grief.

While staying in the Verge, Linden learns that the Ramen have formed an alliance with ur-viles, the demondim spawn created by Lord Foul. These self-loathing creatures have always been enemies of The Land. Unable to communicate with them, she is unsure of their motives.

She also meets a creature called Esmer with whom the Ramen have formed an alliance. Esmer says he is the offspring of the Haruchai Cail who was overcome by the Dancers of the Sea as Covenant and Linden sailed across the ocean to find the One Tree from which they’d hoped to fashion a new Staff of Law. Esmer immediately challenges Stave to fight for having dishonored his father in casting him out after his moment of weakness. Esmer beats Stave badly, but does not kill him.

Linden tells everyone her only mission is to save her son held captive by Lord Foul. The Ranyhyn offer their aid and ask her to join them in a horse rite where they will reveal their knowledge to her.

The Ranyhyn take Linden and Stave to a small pond. The horses been galloping around the pond and Linden drinks of its water. She learns that the storms, called caesures, are caused by the insane Joan Covenant unleashing gouts of power from her white gold wedding band. They are disturbances in time; attacks upon the Arch of Time itself.

After the horse rite, Linden decides she is going to utilize the storms, or caesures as they’re called – to travel back in time and retrieve the staff of law before Anele lost it. As she is retrieving the staff with the help of the ur-viles, Esmer betrays her and summons Demondim – the father race of the ur-viles -- to oppose her. Tapping into the White Gold she still wears on a chain around her neck, she creates a new caesure. The whole party – including the Demondim and the evil Illearth Stone that Linden thought – are transported forward to current time. The time is right, but the party lands far away from the southern mountains from whence they started. They find themselves near the foot of Revelstone – past home to past Lords and current home to the Masters.

The Haruchai are able to get the party safely into Revelstone and engage the Demondim. Linden,Stave, Liand, and a few of the Ramen are welcomed to Revelstone and provided quarters where they are cared for by a doughty old woman named Mahdoubt who seems to have no past and no future but caring for those who stay at Revelstone. They are watched over by a Bloodguard who has had two of his fingers removed. The humbled are mutilated to resemble Thomas Covenant to remind them of the failure of the Bloodguard in handling the Illearth Stone centuries before.

After settling into Revelstone, Linden appeals to the leader of the Masters, Handir, for assistance in her search for her son. Handir is deaf to her appeals on behalf of her son and on behalf of the Land which is in dire danger from Lord Foul.

The party then receives word that two riders are approaching the keep. Linden and the rest climb to the battlements, she is startled to see her son Jeremiah riding with Thomas Covenant, seemingly back from the dead.

There, volume one of the final chronicles ends.

As a stand alone book, this one does not stand well. One has to remember it is an installment in a much larger story and Donaldson’s volume one is but a table setter for the story to come. There is scant story in this first volume. Much of it is dedicated to developing new characters and to putting players where they need to be to get the story rolling. The character development without plot developments makes for slow, sometimes tedious reading.

In the 20 years in between visits to his Land, Donaldon’s writing style has not changed much – and neither have his characters. The narrative gets heavily bogged down in debate, self doubt, and self recrimination. Linden is the same self-pitying, self doubting person she always was. She has discovered profanity in the last ten years.

However, without Thomas Covenant with her to guide her and provide her historical knowledge, she is on her own in the Land and is forced to lead and to convince others to follow her as she pursues her one and only motive: to save her son.

Donaldson has set up what promises to be an interesting tale. Roger Covenant is introduced. Although he is referenced frequently in the first two trilogies, the reader never meets him. It would appear that he is going to be our new villain.

Joan is back and her ability to so deeply affect the land promises that she will be developed further. It was for her that Thomas Covenant, hero of our first two trilogies, sacrificed his own life. Her role is not yet defined. But as an insane person wielding unlimited power, she promises to be a disruptive force.

And we have Thomas Covenant back from the dead. We’ll find out if Donaldson can provide the reader with a sound explanation for Covenant’s return or if he’ll make us groan with disgust at something ill conjured and poorly though out. It will be interesting to see how Covenant weighs the needs of Linden and her son against his own if the conflict comes to that.

Donaldson fans know that if you stick with his stories which can sometimes become tedious and if you can stomach his sometimes pitiful heroes, that he is going to tell you a great story. The first two installments were trilogies. This final chronicle will be four books. He took one entire book to set the stage. It looks promising with the return of Thomas Covenant. One can only hope that Donaldson races forward with an exciting and compelling story.

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