The Last Dark by Stephen Donaldson
It’s over…it’s…finally over. I have a rather complicated relationship with Stephen Donaldson’s renowned Thomas Covenant series. On the one hand, the series offered psychological depths to its characters hitherto unseen in fantasy, but on the other hand, they’re possible some of the most miserable and wretchedly overwritten books that I’ve ever read. I’m a masochist who is pretty much incapable of not finishing a series, so I’ve pursued with Thomas Covenant to the bitter end. Was it worth it? Did the final book redeem the nigh-unreadable nature of much of the series? In short, no.
The Last Dark picks off directly from where Against All Things Ending left off. Covenant has killed his insane ex-wife Joan and stopped the caesures wracking The Land, and Jeremiah has emerged from his construct with his mind returned to him. An eternal night has fallen as the Worm of World’s End makes its way to The Land, and Covenant, Linden and Jeremiah must find a way to defeat the multitude of foes before them; the mad Elohim Kastenessen, Roger Covenant and his Cavewrights, the skurj, the Ravers and behind them all, Lord Foul himself.
The Last Dark is a book going through the motions. One of the few things that I liked about the final ‘Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant’ series has been the intimidating range of foes posed against Covenant and Linden. At almost any point they could be attacked by one of their many varied and interesting foes, and that tension was quite enjoyable to read, but everything plays out in a predictable and boring manner in The Last Dark. Every foe is reduced to simply another obstacle which has to be knocked down until Covenant’s inevitable final conflict with Lord Foul.
Probably my favourite thing about the first trilogy was the constant question as to whether The Land was real, or simply the fantasy of a dying man. This question was at the core of the first trilogy, with Covenant’s choice of contradiction, of both believing and unbelieving in the Land being what ultimately gave him the power to control White Gold and defeat Lord Foul. Although it wasn’t quite as key a focus in the second trilogy, it’s entirely gone in The Last Dark, and not really considered at all. The question as to The Land’s reality, or its relationship to our world, is not present whatsoever, which was my number one hope for this book. The characters of the book still call Covenant the Un-Believer, but he stopped being that a long time ago, and with that the most interesting element of the series is lost. We don’t get to see much of The Land in this book, and the world isn’t expanded in any way. As with the other conclusions in the series, most of the final third is spent crawling through caves. I wonder how many pages I’ve read over these ten books of crawling towards Gravin Threndor? The Land has always had an air of unreality in it, but with the essential confirmation that The Land is real, that unreality becomes impossible to defend. With Donaldson’s refusal to engage with The Land’s reality, he shoots himself in the foot by exposing his own inability to create a compelling and consistent setting.
Although Donaldson was prone to laborious over-writing and use of obnoxiously archaic language in the earlier books, it’s only gotten worse. The over-use of certain words such as ‘mien’, ‘despite’ and ‘extravagance’ set my teeth on edge. Donaldson can write, of course he can, but this is a writer who isn’t really trying. Although his purple prose may look impressive at first, it takes a lot more effort and skill to rein it in. He’s not even an intelligent wordsmith like China Miéville, so this writing is pretty indefensible. I’d take the relatively plain prose of Brandon Sanderson over the ridiculous attempt at grandeur that Donaldson works towards any day.
Continuing with Donaldson’s attempts to extract everything good about this series in the ‘Last Chronicles’, the characters have all tended towards blandness. The bitter, angry rapist Covenant of the first trilogy was a loathsome figure, but we weren’t meant to like him. Reading a series where the great prophesised hero of destiny is clearly a horrible person (but with the supporting cast still affirming their essential goodness) was a big part of the first trilogy’s appeal, but, no, Thomas Covenant is a redeemed hero in the final series. Linden is pretty much the same as always, and the newly emerged Jeremiah is annoying. The supporting cast has a couple of standout characters, such as the Giant commander Rime Coldspray and the disillusioned Haruchai Stave, but they’re still mostly a series of racial characteristics rather than fully fledged characters in their own right.
The earlier Thomas Covenant books were uneven and difficult, but they did contain some clever ideas and were oddly compelling, but that cannot be said for The Last Dark, and the final four books as a whole. If you must read the Thomas Covenant books, just read the first trilogy, or maybe the second (which wasn’t awful), but do not touch these last four books. They really are utterly, irredeemably terrible.