Monday, 11 May 2015

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever - Stephen Donaldson

It's taken me a long time to finish, but it was worth every minute. On the cover, The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever is described as a “classic epic fantasy trilogy”, but it's so much more than that. Yes, it is an epic fantasy, with rolling hills, suspiciously elf- and dwarf-like human tribes, giants, orc-like twisted creatures of evil, and learned Lords who wield magical staves. I expected that much from the cover and blurb.

However, the first chapter begins with Thomas Covenant, previously successful author with wife and child, who was recently diagnosed with leprosy and as a result lost his family, his respect and his health. We have an incredibly vivid and moving account of the discovery of his disease and his sudden change to pariah in his own home in small-town America. It isn't until Covenant is hit by a police car and concussed that the 'fantasy' part of the story begins.

Covenant was warned on diagnosis that many lepers retreat into self-induced hallucinations to try and escape from the harsh reality of his disease, and so when he is plunged into a fantastic, beautiful land where his nerves are healed and he can function as a healthy adult once more, he doesn't believe any of it. One of the most fascinating aspects of this trilogy is the narrative viewpoint – instead of a hero, or even an anti-hero, we have almost a non-participant, a man who doesn't believe that any of what he's experiencing is real. Another thing that really sets The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant apart is the psychology of disability, which is so deeply and accurately portrayed; the foreword tells us that Stephen Donaldson's father worked with lepers in India in the 1940s and 50s, and that the author lived with him as a child when he was performing this work. His personal knowledge of the subject is obvious from the poignant, nuanced but brutally honest portrayal of Covenant's leprosy.

Gender equality was an unexpected but pleasant surprise, too. In most male-written fantasy universes sexual division is rife, but in The Land the council of elders who form a kind of parliament are all referred to as 'Lords', regardless of their gender. Similarly, when a couple marries, the wife takes the husband's name, but the husband also takes the wife's name – for instance, one couple Covenant meets are named Trell Atiaran-mate and Atiaran Trell-mate. Women are expected to be just as competent as men, and in fact the High Lord who leads the council in the second novel is a relatively young woman who is respected for her personal abilities.

Donaldson's unusual use of adjectives gives a lurid, dreamlike quality both to the fantasy Land and to the real-life sections, and he describes scenes using all of the senses, including touch, smell and taste, not just sound and vision. He builds a world rich with detail and background lore, my only criticisms being that he uses certain odd adjectives a little too often so that they start to jar ('extravagantly' and 'anile' being a couple of examples) and that I find his characters' habit of bursting into song or poetry during solemn, ceremonial occasions a little cringe-worthy.

That said, this is a story full of contradictions and moral ambiguity, and Donaldson is a master of the cliff-hanger chapter – many times when reading this I decided to just finish the current chapter and put it down, but found myself compelled to continue to find out what happened. I can't recommend this too highly – it has so much more depth and poignancy than your average fantasy novel, and is a very good epic fantasy story on top of that.

Next up: Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding

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