Ful­fill­ing this fan­tasy re­quires a lengthy ini­ti­a­tion

Fa­tal Revenant By Stephen Donaldson Gol­lancz, 736pp, $ 49.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Ge­orge Wil­liams

FAN­TASY is not for the faint- hearted. Not only do fan­tasy au­thors tend to pro­duce trilo­gies, they also write at great length. Stephen Donaldson is a case in point. Fa­tal Revenant is more than 600 pages long, with its pre­de­ces­sor The Runes of the Earth more than 700 pages. Th­ese are the first of­fer­ings in his new four- book se­ries en­ti­tled the Last Chron­i­cles of Thomas Covenant . It is pre­ceded by two trilo­gies, The First Chron­i­cles and Sec­ond Chron­i­cles , which to­gether run to more than 2500 pages.

Fa­tal Revenant should not be read as a stand­alone book. It fol­lows on from its pre­de­ces­sor. More­over, the in­tri­cate plot and char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion will be fully ap­pre­ci­ated and un­der­stood only if the reader is familiar with both ear­lier trilo­gies. While Fa­tal Revenant con­tains a pro­logue set­ting out what has come be­fore, it is not for­giv­ing to the unini­ti­ated. This raises the ques­tion of whether Fa­tal Revenant is worth the ef­fort.

The an­swer is un­doubt­edly yes. Fa­tal Revenant is the latest in an un­bro­ken line of books that has es­tab­lished Donaldson as the best liv­ing ex­po­nent of the fan­tasy genre. His Chron­i­cles of Thomas Covenant is one of the few true clas­sics in a field lit­tered with too many pale im­i­ta­tions of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings .

Donaldson’s books stand apart be­cause he sub­verts the cliches of the genre. Rather than a heroic lead char­ac­ter, Donaldson in­vented Thomas Covenant, a stub­born leper who re­fused to be­lieve in the mag­i­cal world, the Land, to which he had been trans­ported. His dis­be­lief formed the key theme of Donaldson’s early work.

Covenant was able to wield wild magic through his white- gold wed­ding ring, a metal un­known in the Land. This meant he was ca­pa­ble of sav­ing and damn­ing the Land, things he of­ten did in equal mea­sure.

This set- up pro­vided an in­trigu­ing ba­sis for a fan­tasy se­ries that en­abled Donaldson a depth of char­ac­ter­i­sa­tion not seen be­fore in the field.

The first Covenant book, Lord Foul’s Bane , was pub­lished in 1977, with book six, White Gold Wielder , pub­lished in 1983. A long hia­tus fol­lowed be­fore the Last Chron­i­cles be­gan with The Runes of the Earth in 2004. The se­ries is ex­pected to con­clude in 2013, with Donaldson’s am­bi­tion be­ing to unify the en­tire saga.

Fa­tal Revenant con­tin­ues the stan­dard of Donaldson’s ear­lier works. It is again set in the Land, a place marked by won­drous and cryp­tic be­ings and de­pen­dent for its sal­va­tion on a per­son trans­ported from our time and place. In this se­ries the saviour is not Covenant but Lin­den Avery, his com­pan­ion from the Sec­ond Chron­i­cles who pos­sesses Covenant’s white- gold ring. Avery is rid­dled with power and self- doubt and is driven not by a de­sire to save the Land but by the hope she can save her son, Jeremiah, from the clutches of the evil Lord Foul.

Many se­ries suf­fer from the prob­lem of the un­nec­es­sary se­quel. What started as a fresh and imag­i­na­tive vi­sion too of­ten be­comes stale at the fourth or later book. Fan­tasy is es­pe­cially prone to this, with au­thors pre­fer­ring to stick to one lu­cra­tive idea rather than strik­ing out in a new di­rec­tion. Some se­ries have be­come es­pe­cially bloated, in­clud­ing two of the most pop­u­lar in re­cent his­tory. Robert Jor­dan’s The Wheel of

Time and Terry Good­kind’s Sword of Truth se­ries have both reached book 11. The lat­ter has ap­par­ently fin­ished, while the for­mer was due to con­clude at book 12, some­thing de­nied due to Jor­dan’s re­cent death.

Like Tolkien, who wrote about Mid­dle- earth for most of his life, Donaldson has again shown there is life in the Land. While Avery is not quite as com­pelling a lead char­ac­ter as Covenant, and many of the crea­tures and ideas will be familiar, Donaldson does in­ject a lot of new ideas. Th­ese in­clude time travel, which en­ables Avery to travel 10,000 years into the past. There she in­ter­acts with he­roes, events and a his­tory only hinted at in ear­lier books.

Donaldson ex­cels in re­al­is­ing his imag­i­na­tive cre­ation of the Land and those who pop­u­late it. He has also suc­ceeded again in us­ing the fan­tasy genre to ex­plore larger ques­tions. One ex­am­ple is how Fa­tal Revenant is laced with con­tra­dic­tions. A key char­ac­ter, Es­mer, has fan­tas­tic pow­ers, but also a di­vided lin­eage that means when­ever he aids Avery he is equally com­pelled to be­tray her. A re­lated theme is whether good can be ac­com­plished by evil means. The per­ils and choices that con­front Avery bring this ques­tion re­peat­edly to the fore.

Donaldson places Avery in a se­ries of des­per­ate sit­u­a­tions. She is of­ten ex­hausted, ig­no­rant and even at the edge of de­spair. She meets this by de­vel­op­ing an in­ner strength that Donaldson ex­plores as an in­ner di­a­logue. In­deed, his at­ten­tion to this di­a­logue is as well de­vel­oped as his rich de­scrip­tions of the places and events around her.

If any­thing is miss­ing from Fa­tal Revenant , it is hu­mour. While this ab­sence aids the se­ri­ous in­tent of the work, an oc­ca­sional lighter shade to off­set its dark themes would have been wel­come. Not­with­stand­ing this, Fa­tal Revenant is a wor­thy ad­di­tion to a clas­sic fan­tasy se­ries. Donaldson has con­firmed why he is re­garded as a grand mas­ter of the genre. Ge­orge Wil­liams is a sci- fi and fan­tasy afi­cionado who dab­bles in con­sti­tu­tional law.

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