Series: The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever #1
Author: Stephen Donaldson
Pages: 438 (paperback)
Published: June 12th 1987 (originally published 1977)
Published by: Fontana
The first book in one of the most remarkable epic fantasies ever written, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Unbeliever.
He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in the strange alternate world in which he suddenly found himself. Yet he was tempted to believe, to fight for the Land, to be the reincarnation of its greatest hero....
Thomas Covenant finds himself pulled into a world completely unlike this one. Here, the people respect the earth and coexist with it. It is a land without disease and where some few can call upon the magical properties of earth and wood. Unfortunately it is also a world where a great evil has woken, and which needs a saviour.
I wasn't quite sure what to expect going into this book. A few months prior to buying it, I was in a bookshop when I got talking to one of the sellers. He said the series was one of his favourites, and if I enjoyed anti-heroes, then Thomas Covenant was the ultimate anti-hero. A few days after buying it I was talking to a friend when it came up in conversation as a book that they couldn't finish because of the main character and a particular act which he committed. So I was kinda torn between this classic, epic fantasy, and just how much anti there was in this anti-hero.
We join Thomas Covenant about a year after he has been diagnosed with leprosy. His life has fallen apart around him. His wife has divorced him, taking his small son with her. He can no longer write anything, and the town is turning against him, doing all they can to make sure he has no reason to venture among them. He is dejected, but determined not to be beaten down when he finds himself in a strange land. I thought his reaction to everything that happens to him is very believable. He refuses to accept that he has been transported to another world, and vehemently denies it throughout. Even at the end it's a little unclear what he believes, or whether this is indeed all a dream of his own concoction.
This reaction aside, unfortunately there isn't a whole lot else to like about Covenant. The bookshop-guy was not kidding about him being an anti-hero. He moans and complains, has quite a horrid temper, it suspicious of everyone and everything and is just generally quite a lot of an idiot. Horrendous-action aside, he's just not a nice person. Even with the extenuating factors of what has happened in his recent past, it would be nice for him to be a little bit nicer. He doesn't seem to get along with anyone, and is dragged from place to place by the will of those around him.
The one exception to this seems to be Saltheart Foamfollower, a twelve foot giant who is hundreds of years old. The relationship Covenant builds with him seems to be the closest he comes to friendship in the course of the book, though most of the work does seem to be done by Foamfollower rather than Covenant. Foamfollower himself is a lovely character, often laughing, singing or telling stories. Unfortunately, his tale in this book is not such a happy one, and the place where he finds himself isn't at all fun.
In fact, this seems to hold true for many of the people we meet. Yes, the Despiser - Lord Foul - has awoken and is wreaking havoc but it might have been nice for some happiness to be slipped in there occasionally. Instead there's death, doom, gloom and more death. Which in one way is good - it's nice to know the characters are in actual danger and aren't always going to miraculously escape at the last minute.
By the end of the book I still wasn't sure if I could class Thomas Covenant as an anti-hero. The anti- part I have no problem with - there's anti to spare with Covenant! What I'm quibbling is the hero part. He isn't so much a hero as just...being there. He refuses to act so many times and in so many situations, and when he does it's often because someone has forced him into it. He doesn't seem to grow as a character at all, merely being the protagonist for all this stuff going on around him. Yes, there is some small amount, but considering all he has done and seen and been party to, I can't help but think there should have been a greater impact.
The writing was quite difficult to read at times. I often found that I'd read half a page without actually taking anything in because I'd lost focus on it. It was quite wordy at times, and Covenant often had great long thought processes about his life and how miserable it was and how he thought he was quite possibly going insane and how unfair it all was. Between this, the wordy descriptions of places - I'm not a particularly visual person, so this is more of a personal thing and probably not such an issue for most others - and generally not a particularly easy writing style, I often struggled to read this book for any length of time, making it quite slow going in general.
The Land that Covenant finds himself in, though, is something of a utopia. You know, if you ignore the bad guys trying to take over and kill everyone and everything. It's a beautiful place where people live in harmony with the land (though this did feel a little preachy at times, with people constantly shocked that people didn't see the Land in that way where Covenant came from, i.e. here) and the magic of nature is used to help and heal people. All manner of people live together in peace, and there is a centre of scholarship open to all who want it. People help each other for no reason other than to be nice, seeing the beauty in everything.
Once the story gets going - which I'll admit, takes a while - the pacing is good. Even though this is the classic epic fantasy, thus making huge amounts of travelling obligatory, there isn't too much detail wrung out of these sections, and days are skimmed over until the next bit of action is ready to take place. And even in the slower bits, you never have to wait too long for something to happen, there's just a bit more filling in of knowledge about stuff. Luckily these never really felt like info-dumps.
Overall an interesting book, and while the main character isn't particularly likeable there are plenty of others about who interest me enough to carry on with the series. Plus I got the trilogy as an omnibus so the start of the next book is literally just sitting there looking at me.