A while back I ordered a set of Stephen Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, which I remembered rather fondly from my teen years (and possibly even early 20s). As a break from reading more serious things – Fate of Africa – is next up, I read the first of the series (Lord Foul’s Bane), finishing last night. My reaction can basically be summed up in one word.

Blech.

What was I thinking when I was a kid who thought these books were great? Did I really have so little idea what made a book worth reading? I’ll get some minor quibbles out of the way first.

  • The best-known criticism of Donaldson is that his writing is pretentious. One chapter started with “the sky was embittered with an excess of gall” or something like that. Maybe that’s wrong and I’ll correct it when I get home, but I think the reason I can’t remember it exactly is that it’s so bad my memory rebelled. Phrases like that are all through the book. The dialog is often of that stilted portentous type for which some have criticized Lord of the Rings, only several times more so. Characters don’t discuss anything; they practice oratory on one another.
  • My other minor gripe is with the setting. It’s all very well to set out to write an epic and to foreshadow mysteries yet to be revealed, but you don’t have to remind the reader in every single paragraph that it’s an epic. Tolkien was truly the master at this. While LotR is obviously epic in scope, and embedded within an even larger epic that is the history of Middle Earth, the focus on the characters is never lost. He writes about real people living in a complex world, not a complex world that just happens to have a few people in it. Donaldson’s references to yet-to-come characters and places come so thick and fast, and are so clumsily obvious as teasers for the next book, that the plot and characters suffer.

That last sentence brings me to my major criticism of the book: the characters are awful. It’s not just that Thomas Covenant is a jerk who does great harm to others, as many have noted (especially with regard to Lena). I don’t have to like the main character to enjoy a book, but it would be nice to understand him. Besides being a jerk, Covenant is the most incredibly self-absorbed character I’ve ever encountered. He wallows in self-pity and self-doubt even as people are making life-and-death decisions, sometimes even as they’re dying around (or for) him. It’s obvious this book was written in the era of narcissistic navel-gazing, but even that’s not what I really dislike about the characters. What is really bad about the characters, from a literary point of view, is that they act so arbitrarily. Covenant has these random, often violent, outbursts that hardly seem justified by what had preceded them. Even worse, other characters just blithely and inexplicably seem to accept this. They don’t seem to be shaken by it, and they try to be befriend our little sociopath despite them. The one exception seems to be Atiaran, who just kinds of runs hot and cold for a while and then goes off to sulk in the corner. There’s also arbitrary behavior unrelated (or almost unrelated) to Covenant. What the heck is up with Variol and Tamarantha? Was that supposed to be dramatic? It was stupid. Their actions are neither foreshadowed nor explained afterward, nor even particularly relevant to the plot. It’s the literary equivalent of interrupting an action movie with a scene of kittens being drowned, as a facile nod to providing emotional context.

In the end the best thing I can say about Lord Foul’s Bane is that it’s no Ruin Mist, but that’s damning with faint praise indeed. Nothing can ever touch that piece of crap for sheer ineptitude. Donaldson wasn’t trying to defraud anyone when he wrote the Chronicles. He’s not a fake author just out to make a buck. He’s a real author – just a bad one.