Monday, September 28, 2009

Hidden Gems 2: Stephen Donaldson

I know what you’re thinking; Stephen Donaldson is a very strange pick for a hidden gem. Everyone has heard about him and knows how influential his Thomas Covenant books have been to the fantasy genre or for that matter modern literature in general. That right there is the problem, everyone has heard of him but too many people haven’t gotten around to reading him yet. Let’s see if we can change that.

Most people know how critical the year 1977 was for the genre. Lord of the Rings had continued to sell well since it’s original publication but although there had a number of important fantasy books released none of them had enjoyed anywhere near that commercial success. 1977 came along and with it the release of Terry Brooks’ Sword of Shannara and everything changed. There was another important release that year Stephen Donaldson’s Lord Fouls Bane the first book in the First Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Brooks' work was admittedly heavily influenced by Lord of the Rings (leading to some accusations of outright plagiarism.). Young unsuspecting hero sets off to find magical item that can be used to defeat the Dark Lord who is threatening to destroy/take over the world. There is a mysterious ancient man with long lost magical powers who acts as a guide and a host of typical support characters. This template was to heavily influence the genera for the next twenty years and still does so to this day. Donaldson however did something different.

Thomas Covenant was not your typical fantasy hero. He once had a seemingly idyllic life he was a successful writer, happily married and with a beautiful baby son. All that changed when he caught leprosy. It costs him half of his hand, causes his wife and son to leave him and left him living alone on his property outside of a small town whose people wanted nothing to do with him and treated him as an outcast. As you could imagine he became rather dark and cynical, obsessed with a daily routine that would keep him safe and alive. He couldn’t afford to grow careless it would be the death of him. One day he falls and bumps his head on the living room table and when he wakes up he finds himself in another world known as the land. The land is a mystical place that grants all its denizens the power to feel its life force, Covenant can as well and what’s more he finds he no longer as leprosy. Covenant immediately mistrusts the land, fearing it is a trick of his own troubled mind and will lead him to carelessness and death. In response he dubs himself the unbeliever and sets the tone for the next few novels. The concept of morality is one that is considered in depth, Covenant has to decide if his actions are constrained by morality in the land since it seems to be a product of his troubled mind. Early on he rapes a teenage girl who has been nothing but kind to him when he is overwhelmed by his newly returned sex drive. Guilt over the incident consumes him and eventually he decides whether it was real or not it matters to him. The Lords of the Land believe Covenant is destined to save it from Lord Foul, a malignant entity that exists outside the arch of time and is the embodiment of despair, using the white gold of his wedding band. Since white gold is an element that does not exist in the land naturally it contains magical powers. The problem is Covenant can’t always make it work and each time he does he risks destroying the arch of time and freeing Lord Foul. Lord Foul claims responsibility for bringing Covenant to the Land in order to free him, claiming that whether he wants to or not Covenant’s own disbelief and despair will make him do it eventually.

There has been a lot of praise thrown in the direction of authors like Martin and Erikson for their so called ‘realistic fantasy’, having characters that don’t fit easily into the typical good and evil archetypes. There is a debt these writers owe to Donaldson which I don’t feel the general reading public acknowledges often enough. Donaldson created a morally complex character in a fantasy setting well over thirty years ago and what’s more he cleverly contrasted him with the wholesome inhabitants of the land and the evil Lord Foul. I read the first (which focus on Covenant) and second chronicles (which focuses on Covenant and a new character Linden Avery) when I was 21 and while I enjoyed them I don’t think I fully appreciated them. I Would perhaps recommended them for someone slightly older as when I started reading the Last chronicles (which focuses on Linden Avery) last year I found I appreciated them more than the originals.

Aside from the Thomas Covenant books Donaldson has also written the Gap cycle(a five book space opera), Mordents Need (A two book fantasy series) and The man who detective novels (of which there are four and were originally published under the pseudonym Reed Stephens). Sadly I am forced to admit have yet to read any of these but intend to change that as soon as possible.

If you have been intending to read Stephen Donaldson but for whatever reason haven't gotten around to it; give him a go now you won't be dissapointed.

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