Thomas Covenant – Unbeliever

I finished.

Last week, after reading through my many Melbourne journeys for work and many weekends over coffee, I finally closed the tenth volume of the Thomas Covenant series. And to be frank; I am feeling a little relieved to be done.

This series of books revolves around Covenant; on paper the most unlikeable antihero imaginable. Filled with self-loathing, anger and numerous anti-social traits. An author, diagnosed with leprosy, wife lost, child taken, universally feared and despised.

The stuff great stories are made of, clearly.

I vaguely recalled reading some or all of the series when I was much younger, which prompted me to give them another comprehensive shot since the last book was only released in 2013.

The first three books in the series are a trilogy released from 1977 to 1979, and they are unambiguously great, albeit somewhat bleak and challenging in parts (note: trigger warning for rape if you decide to read it). But I would strongly recommend not to read beyond, because the second trilogy and the last four books are increasingly fainter copies of the original. Which is a shame, because after the first three books I really wanted the remaining seven to be of the same calibre.

The first trilogy has a very memorable list of characters; Lord Foul (the antagonist) has some wonderfully evocative and malevolent mono/dialogue, the Lords struggling to recover past knowledge without despair,  the Haruchai warrior race with a very demanding personal ethic. And Covenant throughout balancing his struggle with self-loathing, uncertainty whether his experience is even real, and transcending his own limitations for a growing investment in the people he wrongs along the way.

Even knowing about “clench racing” (look it up!) and noticing the tic more as a result didn’t diminish the strength of the storytelling.

The great thing about the second trilogy is that it cleverly uses the fact that time flows faster in his fantasy alternate reality than in our real world to have 10 years in Covenants life put him 3000 years into the future in this alternate reality. A chance to create a completely new setting for the world, a new challenge, a new iteration of the struggle with lord Foul. What diminishes it though is the fact it turns into ever more fantasy-travel-porn… gratuitously labouring from one side of the world to another to get object X to challenge foe Y in increasing order of challenge. Grinding is no more fun in books than it is in WoW.

Add to this the fact that he has a somewhat painfully whiny companion in Linden Avery along for the ride. I understand what she is for, and intellectually the exploration of her personality is interesting enough… it just doesn’t make for very entertaining or relaxing reading in any other way than as an intellectual exercise.

And this is where the last four books become ever more dreary. For starters Covenant doesn’t appear until the third book at all; it’s all Linden all the time, crumpling into herself in despair over the challenges in front of her, setting herself progressively less lofty goals until she basically dooms the world when she brings back Covenant. It feels like her role was more to drive the story to such a deep crises as to challenge Covenant sufficiently to fix it all again. Add to this a veritable constellation of bad guys all trying to do them in at the same time for differing agendas, and add more travel-porn into the mix, and it feels like the only person to whom the story must have been enjoyable was the author.

The only reason I didn’t give up before the end?

I was morbidly curious to see how the author was going to get himself out of the knots he was setting up. Yes. I meta-read, not so much the story as the author. Also… spoiler: Deus-Ex, a million times. Ugh.

In short: I heartily recommend the original trilogy… just pretend nothing else happens after it. Lord Foul is defeated. He never recovered from the damage done by Covenant. You’ll save yourself several months of increasing agony.