I’ve said my farewell to Thomas Covenant, and now it’s time to rank the ten books. Broadly speaking, the first chronicles haven’t aged well for me; the second remain a masterpiece, and the last are a mixed bag. But it’s not a simple ranking of the second series at top, the first at bottom, and the last in-between. Here’s how the volumes line up individually.
1. The One Tree. 5 stars. If The Wounded Land brought horror into fantasy, The One Tree showed how to turn the horror inward with unrelenting self-scrutiny. The sea voyage to the One Tree is framed around two pivotal chapters, “Father’s Child” and “Mother’s Child”, in which Linden relives her traumatic childhood. Those harrowing confessions are the book’s best, and yet for all the suffocating self-therapy, The One Tree never loses sight of the quest at hand. It was a milestone for me, I completely lost myself in it, and it’s one of my favorite books of all time. Not only Linden but everyone’s trials are on display — Covenant’s catatonic terror, his possession by Linden, Cabledreamer’s waking nightmares, Hergrom’s death outside the Sandwall, and the Haruchai’s shame and departure from service after being seduced by the merewives. In the context of a sea voyage this all integrates flawlessly; Starfare’s Gem becomes the macrocosm of inner voyages and demons as lethal as the Nicor. And the failure at the One Tree is pure courageous tragedy.
2. The Wounded Land. 5 stars. Almost tie with The One Tree. The Second Chronicles proved that it’s not only possible to write good fantasy sequels, but better ones. I love the story behind its inception: Donaldson originally had no plans for it, and when his publisher kept hounding him for sequels (with ideas that got worse and worse), he retorted, “Look, the only way I’d revisit the Land is if I nuked the place.” Then he stopped and thought about what he said. That’s how the Sunbane was born — the black-magic equivalent of toxic dumping, and the most brilliantly conceived force of evil in the history of fantasy. The One Ring and the Others have nothing on the cult of blood sacrifice that feeds relentless cycles of desert drought, tormented vegetation, blinding rain, and lethal insect swarms. The Wounded Land raised the stakes so dramatically that it brought horror into the fantasy genre, and an evil that couldn’t be solved by armies and battles. By far the most devastating book in the Chronicles, with tight, tense narrative.
3. Fatal Revenant. 5 stars. The first half of this book is the best thing Donaldson ever wrote. The strength of writing on display is of the highest order; plots, counterplots, and motives so deftly concealed it’s impossible to tell what’s really going on. I was convinced that Covenant was already “becoming Lord Foul”, as the author foreshadowed in a ’90s interview, and part of me thinks this would have worked better than the instantaneous climax at the end of The Last Dark. But not really, because the reveal that Covenant is really Roger is a stunning payoff, and the showdown at the Blood of the Earth among the most thrilling in any work of fantasy. The Andelain climax is just as mind-blowing. Fatal Revenant brings together Donaldson’s strengths at top form — the throttling narrative crescendos of the Gap Cycle, the hidden agendas and covert operations of Mordant’s Need, the philosophical torments of all the Covenant books — as we travel back thousands of years into a majestic and dangerous past.
4. The Illearth War. 5 stars. For all my bitching about the First Chronicles, the middle book is a steamroller. In one thread is the war, appallingly realistic, seen through the eyes of Hile Troy — a counterpoint to Covenant’s unbelief, whose blind patriotism and abstract military strategies end up getting the Land’s army slaughtered. War wasn’t depicted in such ugly, unglamorous Vietnam style back in the day, and these chapters remain dreadful page turners; the Raver-possessed giant still scares the tripe out of me when he crests the hill squeezing green hiss. The other thread is Covenant and Elena’s quest for the Seventh Ward, and unlike the eastward trek with Foamfollower in the next book, this is no Frodo-Sam facsimile. Elena is used very effectively to put her relation to Covenant in perspective, and to call into question his roles as a father, rapist and salvific figure. Her subtle insanity and admiration for Kevin yield fascinating dialogue, her lust for Covenant is weirdly compelling, and the tragedy at the Blood of the Earth classic. Finally there is Caerroil Wildwood, the nasty forest guardian and best character Donaldson ever created for The Land.
5. The Runes of the Earth. 4 ½ stars. This one is way underrated. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard it referred to as a prologue to a trilogy, but that’s just wrong. Runes of the Earth has enough meat and plotting to make it stand as the full leg of a table. It focuses on the Haruchai and Ramen, their histories of impossible standards and shame of failures (Haruchai) and exile (Ramen), and how each is more a problem than a solution. Linden is challenged by both in austere rituals, and accepted by the Ramen but rejected by the Haruchai, save for Stave who chooses to be ostracized for sake of friendship. Stave’s speech in the final chapter is frankly one of the most dramatic moments in the entire chronicles, as he makes the completely un-Haruchai choice to place integrity above honor. Then there is the awesome time trip, as everyone near kills themselves riding a caesure back centuries to retrieve the Staff of Law, and run afoul worse things (like the Illearth Stone) out of an even deeper past. The caesures are genius; Donaldson’s description of being inside one floors me. Runes, like Fatal Revenant, promised a final chronicles that could have come close to matching the genius of the Second.
6. White Gold Wielder. 4 ½ stars. The brilliant endgame. There’s a bit of slog at the start, in the trek across ice and snow, which isn’t mitigated by Hamako’s convenient relocation, nor his contrived conflict involving poor use of a croyel. But once Covenant and Linden are back in The Land, Donaldson is at top form with the standards set in The Wounded Land and One Tree. The showdowns at the Banefire and Mount Thunder pay off Covenant’s role in a way that Power That Preserves hardly came close to doing. The fusing of venom and wild magic to make Covenant an alloy is on the same plane of creative genius as anything else in Second Chronicles — the Sunbane, the Clave, the Elohim, and Kasreyn’s croyel . And his surrender and acceptance of Lord Foul is brilliant not only in execution, but for inverting the paradigm of Kevin Landwaster, who like Covenant stood with Foul at Mount Thunder and scripted the Land’s fate in a desperate gamble. Covenant’s succeeds. As if that weren’t enough, Linden’s role as the Sun-Sage comes to perfect fruition with the stunning reveals of Vain and Findail.
7. The Power that Preserves. 4 stars. This relatively low placement will infuriate many fans, but as I said, the First Chronicles haven’t aged well for me. For all the originality, they’re astonishing rip-offs of Tolkien. Especially the final volume, which replays the Siege of Gondor at Revelstone while Covenant and Foamfollower take the eastward trek to Foul’s Mordor. Donaldson has admitted that the First Chronicles boil down to a banal contest of muscle: armies clashing with armies, and Lord Foul a clearly defined foe. The sequel chronicles shed the Tolkien baggage — no armies left to fight for the Land, no one knows who Foul is, the Land has been raped (by the Sunbane in the second and time vortexes in the third), and Foul’s methods are oblique — far more interesting than the first series. Still, The Power That Preserves has classic moments, my favorite being that displayed on the cover art: the destruction of the Staff of Law at the Colossus. Pietten’s slaying the Ranyhyn is another. And don’t get me wrong, this is a very good book. It’s just not the gem I thought it was three decades ago.
8. Against All Things Ending. 3 ½ stars. If you polled Donaldson fans, I’m sure this would be a popular vote for #10. I can already hear howls of outrage for my daring to place it above Lord Foul’s Bane. But I have a blast with this installment. The inner tormented redundancies and philosophical bickering admittedly get out of hand, though because I like this sort of thing it doesn’t bother me as much as it should. It has a transcendent start (Covenant’s resurrection: “the white gold made flesh”), a blow-out finish (Covenant’s murder of Joan, followed by a tsunami, on top of the sun and stars going out), and a harrowing journey in-between (to the Lost Deep, where Roger and the nasty She-Bane await). There’s also the exorcism of Jeremiah which results in a high body count, though doesn’t carry quite the impact it should. The underground realm of the Viles is stunning, and the novel’s best part. All things considered, I don’t think Against All Things Ending is bad as it’s made out to be, even if it’s weighed down by repeated refusals to get to the point.
9. The Last Dark. 3 stars. I was disappointed by this finale, and what I do like about it causes me to esteem it more than it deserves. You could easily make a case for it being the worst book in the chronicles. It has all the ingredients of a masterpiece — an unsparing slaughterfest that neither Covenant nor Linden can stop; all they can aim for is damage control and stop Lord Foul from making Hell out of Hades. The destruction of the world proceeds, and the Worm of the World’s End eats its fill. But it’s too by-the-numbers and filled with cheap deus-ex-machinas. What it lacks in plot it somewhat makes up for in theme: Tolkien looms in the hard nobility of the Land’s defenders who embrace courage knowing they’ll fail. More than ever, the giants are hobbit equivalents intoning virtues of hopelessness and cheer. But the flaws stand out. The final showdown is weak. The idea of Covenant becoming Lord Foul is genius, but the execution is lukewarm and occurs awkwardly and out-of-the-blue, in conjunction with Linden’s confusing liberation of the She-Bane. The epilogue is conceptually grand — pointing to a new world, not exactly free of Lord Foul, but diluted by the flesh of wild magic — but we deserved to see more of the Worm and the apocalypse instead of the awkward Mount Thunder showdown.
10. Lord Foul’s Bane. 2 stars. This one is a bloody chore to get through. Mostly it’s the rough writing. Donaldson said in an interview that “Lord Foul’s Bane makes me want to rewrite; I want to take out my pencil and start hacking and slashing.” So do I. Then again are the Tolkien trappings — the Council of Lords evoking Elrond, Drool Rockworm a Gollum equivalent, and a quest to a mountain landing a fiery climax. Really the only thing innovative here is the introduction of white gold magic (the power to save or damn), and of course, the rape of Lena. In today’s Game of Thrones climate, a single rape may seem like child’s play, but back in the day I was poleaxed by this scene. Mythic fantasy wasn’t the place for assholes like Covenant. A rapist savior was a landmark from an author trying to breathe fresh life into old frameworks. Unfortunately it doesn’t do much to save this book.