Book II of THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER offers surprises in viewpoint, character, and plot while continuing to flesh out Donaldson's fantasy world.

I am now halfway through THE ILLEARTH WAR, the second book of THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER by Stephen R. Donaldson. (See my previous “Discovering the Unbeliever” posts if you missed them.)

As I stated in my last post, I was worried that the second novel would continue to force the reader (i.e. me) to wallow in the pitiful psyche of Thomas Covenant, its unlikeable yet strangely compelling protagonist. I knew I wouldn’t make it through another book trapped in the viewpoint of this pain-addicted, pessimistic, masochistic loser. I needn’t have worried…I am enjoying the second book even more than the first.

Donaldson was obviously clever enough to realize that his protagonist might grate on readers’s nerves, so he pulls some interesting trickes in THE ILLEARTH WAR to put a fresh perspective on his fantasy world and to allow the reader a fresh point-of-view (p-o-v). This new viewpoint is a handy way to see Thomas Covenant from a totally different angle.

Covenant is still the depressive curmudgeon when he’s brought back to The Land after 40 years (only two weeks in his own world). However, during Part 2 of this novel, Donaldson switches point-of-view from Covenant to Hile Troy, another visitor from “our world” who was pulled into the land by an act of magical summoning. (It was a failed attempt to bring Covenent back five years earlier.)

Not only does having TWO “earthmen” provide us with a firmer belief that The Land is indeed real and not just a fever dream of Thomas Covenant’s, it offers the chance to escape Covenant’s tattered psyche. Of course, Covenant himself STILL DOESN’T BELIEVE in The Land, even when he meets Hile Troy. Troy is the opposite of Covenant: he believes in The Land, he wants to be its savior, and he chooses it over his earthly existence. Covenant can only view Troy as a construction of his own unconscious mind, which is exactly how he views EVERYTHING including The Land itself. On top of all his terrible qualities, Covenant is also a secret narcissist.

It’s rewarding and refreshing to see Hile Troy confront Covenant and make the same arguments that I as the reader want to make. Troy tries his best to convince Covenant that a) The Land is real, not a dream , and b) that Covenant is far better off in this world than as a leper on earth. Yet Covenant refuses to accept either of these notions…he is obsessed with returning to his “real” life of ultimate isolation, terrifying disease, and mental anguish.

Troy, on the other hand, was born blind and has had his sight restored by the magic of The Land. He embraces his new life and has risen to the rank of Warmark in the armies of the Lords. He is in charge of planning the strategy of the Illearth War and giving the Lords a chance against Lord Foul’s army of corruption and monsters as it marches north to destroy civilization. Covenant once again goes along reluctantly with the “dream” he’s having, the irascible shlub who denies every hope, taunts his friends with hypocritical condemnations, and basically rains on everyone’s parade as they do their best to save The Land from annihilation. Interesting new characters are introduced, and The Land weaves a fresh spell about the reader. If this story had stayed stuck in the gloom of Covenant’s point-of-view, it would have been nearly impossible to continue reading.

Through Troy’s p-o-v we understand the mental weight of someone responsible for sending thousands of men into battle, we feel his love of The Land and its enchanted beauty, and we know his secret passion for the High Lord Elena…who appears to be Covenant’s illegitimate daughter (although the book hasn’t made this clear yet, and Covenant seemingly hasn’t figured it out). I don’t know what to say about the scene where Elena kisses Covenant…there are blurred shades of morality here. Of course, Covenant flees from any intimacy, but in this case I breathed a sigh of relief! One wants to smack Covenant and make him ask Elena exactly how old she is and WHO HER FATHER WAS…because I’m betting it was him. Yes, it was forty years ago, but the Lords have their youth extended by the Earthpower…

I’d love to know what Donaldson’s thinking was when he wrote this second book of the trilogy. Did readers/editors of LORD FOUL’S BANE (Book I) ask him to consider a viewpoint shift in THE ILLEARTH WAR? Or did he tire of the incessant whining and masochism of Thomas Covenant and decide to give himself a break from writing in the Unbeliever’s p-o-v? As a writer these are the kinds of questions I ponder. A novel is, among other things, a series of choices carefully made by the author. Usually they have very good reasons for whatever road they took.

The third book in THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT THE UNBELIEVER. This has to be one of fantasy fiction's all-time great cover paintings. Darrell K. Sweet, the artist, is a guest of honor at this year's World Fantasy Convention.

As I continue to read THE ILLEARTH WAR, I wonder if the point-of-view will shift again to other characters … and if it will ever come back to Covenant. I’ve stopped wondering if Covenant will ever change from “Unbeliever” to “Believer” or learn to accept the second chance at life The Land has given him. I doubt that he will ever change. He seems stuck in the rigid groove of his own tremendous denial. I also wonder if he will end up transported back to earth at the end of each book as he was at the close of the first one. If so, this will only reinforce his idea that The Land is a construction of his subconscious.

A great novel not only thrills and entertains, but engenders questions and deep thought. THE ILLEARTH WAR succeeds at all of these with flying colors. It is high fantasy grounded in the absolute reality of the human condition. That is a winning combination.

Look for another update when I approach the third book, THE POWER THAT PRESERVES.

The Land is calling…

Peace!

John