One of my reading goals this year, in addition to reading more, was to read more widely. I wrote about my desire to get back into some science fiction and fantasy back in January. Although I have read only one book from that initial list, I have successfully read several works that fall, more or less, into those categories:
- Empire State
- Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children
- House of Leaves
- The Night Circus
- Saga Volumes 1 & 2
- Super Sad True Love Story
Thomas Covenant lives in the modern world (well, the modern world of the late 1970s) and suffers from leprosy. One day he travels into the main town to pay a bill, where people actively try to avoid him and discourage him from coming to town. At one point, he steps off a curb and is seemingly hit by a police car. When he wakes, he is in an alternate world, known as The Land, where he is is mistaken for the mythic Berek Halfhand, an ancient lord who had defeated the eponymous villain in the long ago past. He had been summoned from his home world by the ridiculously named Drool Rockworm. Lord Foul gives Covenant a threatening message to give to the leaders of The Land. The first part of the novel focuses on Covenant’s efforts to reach the leaders and the second part of the book focuses on a select group of adventurers setting off to defeat the great evil that has befallen their world.
If the structure of the novel sounds familiar, then many other aspects of the book will too as it is definitely derivative of The Lord of the Rings. For the most part, Lord Foul is an unseen evil who returns to The Land after many years. Rockworm is very Gollum like. There’s a council that decides what action to take and a magic ring that Covenant cannot wear without great anguish. That said, the world Donaldson creates is neither as sophisticated nor as rich as Tolkien’s masterpiece; however, that is probably an unfairly high standard to compare any fantasy novel to.
As I’ve found with many fantasy novels, the writing is often overwrought, as if saying in twenty words what one could say with two somehow makes a work epic. Fantasy readers expect fat novels, but it seems sometimes that comes at the expense of tight prose.
One of the most distinct and intriguing features of the novel is how unlikable Covenant is. He is not the typical hero. Having grown bitter over the years because of his illness and the way people have treated him, he lashes out at others and commits some unexpectedly vile acts.
I enjoyed the book more than not. I appreciated that Covenant was such an unusual main character and I was interested in finding out more about the relationship between the two worlds, although the latter is not much expounded on. Because of his accident, Covenant believes the world to be in his dreams and not real, earning him the name Unbeliever. His slow acceptance of his new situation was another unique aspect of the novel.
I was on the fence as to whether or not I wanted to continue with the series. However, looking at other reviews, it seems like the consensus is that this is the weakest book and Donaldson doesn’t really hit his stride until later. Considering that, I will probably pick up Book Two, The Illearth War, at some point and see how it goes.