Tonight I finally finished reading 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.) Before I dive into the trilogy’s final book, THE POWER THAT PRESERVES, I have a brief word to say about THE ILLEARTH WAR:

Wow.

The second book is even better than the first. This goes right along with what a friend of mine (Fred S. Durbin) was saying: That each book of this trilogy is better than the one that came before. Seeing as how I felt that same way about Tolkien’s LORD OF THE RINGS, this was good news. That Durbin guy knows what he’s talking about (there’s a link to his blog at the bottom of this page). THE ILLEARTH WAR had me captivated right from the start.

Donaldson upped the stakes and the magic in this second installment. My last post talked about the refreshing point-of-view switch from Covenant to Hile Troy, the blind earth-man who enters The Land and becomes a Warmark (i.e. general). At one point Lord Mhoram, the most likeable character in the book and the most steadfast of all the powerful Lords, says to Troy: “Ur-Lord Covenant is a prophet.” Covenant had just told Troy that the war he was leading would lead to his own tragic end.

At the time I (much like Troy) thought Covenant was just full of his usual bitter pessimism. Troy’s strategy does end up winning the war for the Lords…but at a terrible cost in lives…and  his own fate is a strange and bizarre tragedy that I could never have predicted. It’s one of the book’s most memorable and unique moments, involving the weird and deadly power of the Forestal of Garrotting Deep…an immortal druid-god who adds new depth to The Land’s mystical properties. Troy is the embodiment of “blind faith” and that which he believes in utterly (The Land) utterly consumes him. His fate is far stranger than death…and it left me feeling ambivalent, unsure if this was poetic justice or undeserved retribution.

Covenant himself becomes more human in this middle book…discovering at last that Elena is his daughter (albeit a child of rape). Yet this too leads to its own tragedy in a confrontation of magnificent sorcery that is literally earth-shattering. On a quest to find the ultimate magical power (Lord Kevin’s Seventh Ward), Covenant gets to know Elena and finally accepts his love for her…yet in the end it does neither of them any good. The ending of THE ILLEARTH WAR is far more tragic than LORD FOUL’S BANE…Donaldson obviously does not want to repeat himself. This isn’t really a surprise when you consider that a “middle chapter” has to build tension that will be resolved later in the “final chapter.” He does a wonderful job of this…THE ILLEARTH WAR leaves its reader hungry for the final volume.

Whereas LORD FOUL’S BANE was all build, build, build to a single climax, THE ILLEARTH WAR is a series of builds that create several mini-climaxes, culminating in the thrilling yet tragic resolution of two simultaneous plotlines (i.e. The War/The Quest). Donaldson has succeeded on many levels here: The world of The Land is richer and deeper. The recurring characters (Mhoram, Bannor, even Covenant) are compelling and endearing…Covenant is definitely not a hero but Mhoram and Bannor definitely are.

The book is full of scene after scene of unrestrained magical conflicts and eruptions of deadly sorcery. This is exactly what I was hoping for. Donaldson’s narration does tend to meander in certain scenes, but it’s only because he wants to build suspense to a fever pitch and evoke the severest detail in his characters. He never gets in a hurry to move the plot along, and yet when something major happens he leaves you thrilled and breathless. And in this second book, things really happen. BIG things.

Thomas Covenant’s journey from coward to hero (Is that his journey?) has taken one important step. In the first book he was afraid to even try…in the second book he eventually tries to use his White Gold Power…but he’s completely ineffective. It leaves me wondering if the third book (his third return to The Land) will have him trying AND succeeding to use his power. Perhaps he will realize that he waited too long, didn’t take his role as messiah/savior seriously, and paid a heavy price for it. Perhaps he will ultimately embrace his slumbering “wild magic” in THE POWER THAT PRESERVES. And yet … Donaldson’s work remains unpredictable. I have no faith that Covenant will try, or succeed.

This brings me again to the heart of Donaldson’s genius: He takes the Epic Fantasy genre and applies the reality of a Flawed Humanity to it. His heroes are just as likely to die or fail as to conquer…his magic is just as likely to consume you as it is to aid you…his characters fall prey to their own weaknesses of character and the lust for power.

Donaldson uses the tropes of fantasy to explore the Human Condition. This is literary work of the highest degree…genre be damned. Fantasy Literature with an emphasis on the Literature, yet with no shortage of adventure. The icing on the cake is how he manages to evoke such raw humanity in such fantastic situations and settings. It is a goal that all good fantasy writers should strive to achieve.

Ironically, I’m now sharing more of Covenant’s skepticism that The Land might actually BE a fantasy world…a projection of his own damaged psyche. But it’s such a wonderfully beautiful, enaging, and exciting world that I don’t really care if it’s real or not. Which may be the exact place Covenant is heading for in the end. If a dream can heal you and bring you enlightenment, is it any less real than the dream we live every day and call “the waking world”?

Now I’m ready to dive into the pages beneath that fabulous green cover that has fascinated me since childhood. Bring on THE POWER THAT PRESERVES!

More thoughts on the THOMAS COVENANT TRILOGY as I continue the journey…

Peace!

John