Recently I found myself in the unusual position of having time to kill, following the collapse of a musical project I had been working on.
The project in question was Siegfried Bassoon – a musical autobiography of Siegfried Sassoon (for Bassoon). I had poured hours into a promising first draft of the piece, but the project collapsed when it transpired that Britain’s foremost bassoonists consider themselves too important to travel to Carrickfergus for a weekend of intensive development work, despite my assurances of an 8% share of any future profits. I suppose I will now have to focus my efforts on Wilfred Bowin’ – a musical autobiography of Wilfred Owen (for Cello). I hear cellists are a much more reasonable breed, equipped with the sort of foresight that is foreign to the mind of the eminent bassoonist.
Taking advantage of my uncharacteristically clear schedule, I decided to immerse myself in the world of literary Fantasy, arming myself with Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever series. I purchased the full series in one meaty tome some months ago, but my heavy workload had prevented me from getting anywhere near it, and in the interim it had festered under a pile of cheap paperbacks deep in the catacombs of my darksome abode.
I had high hopes for this novel, having read many positive reviews about Donaldson’s unusual treatment of the fantasy genre. However, since completing the book, two things have become clear to me. Firstly, it appears that “unusual” is now being employed as a synonym for “crap”. Secondly, anonymous internet reviewers are a shower of unreliable clowns.
Though his name makes him sound like a Northern Irish poltical figure, Stephen Donaldson is a decent writer. I want to get that cleared up at the outset. I am not saying the problems with Lord Foul’s Bane lie with the author’s writing style. So don’t have a go at me about that.
The first and most obvious problem with the book is Donaldson’s laughable nomenclature. As we all know, any great work of Fantasy is underpinned by a solid naming system. Be it the Anglo-Saxon inspired handles employed in A Song Of Ice and Fire, the inventive monikers offered up by Wheel Of Time, or the utterly sublime names crafted by Grand Master Tolkien.
Donaldson is no good at names.
In the rich world of Tolkiendom, legendary kings and lords have names like “Fëanor”, “Elendil” and “Ar-Pharazôn”. The legendary king in Donaldson’s world is called “Kevin”.
Sometimes it seems like Donaldson just can’t be bothered coming up with anything inventive. Think of the wonderful names great Fantasy authors gave the worlds and locations they invented. “The Young Kingdoms”, “Númenor”, and “Genabackis” are a few miscellaneous examples. Donaldson calls his world “The Land.”
But this pathetic nomenclature is not the worst of Lord Foul’s Bane’s problems.
Thomas Covenant may be the most frustratingly weak-ass protagonist in the history of Fantasy literature. Using his leprosy as a pretext for cowardice, Covenant consistently shies away from fights like the biggest lapper you’ve ever seen.
Now, I will admit that I’ve been accused of lapping a few fights in my time. For example in 1999, Johnny Morris and I angrily disagreed about the validity of Chewbacca’s death in Vector Prime, and he waited for me at the school-gates with a gang of his massive heavies; heavies who could barely get to grips with basic English, never mind the intricacies of the Star Wars EU. I fled that particular fight (by stowing away in a P.E. teacher’s car), but only because because I was heavily outnumbered, and anyway, I didn’t possess a Staff of Death, as did Covenant.
That’s right – despite inheriting an awesome staff that enables him to nail powerful enemies with simple swipes, Covenant still refuses to take a proactive role in any of the skirmishes he finds himself embroiled in, instead leaving the fighting to hard-pressed warriors wielding more conventional weapons. I found myself screaming things like “Fight you fucking coward!!”, chapter after chapter. “Use your Death Staff, you craven idiot!!” I was made to stop the actual shouting when a neighbour complained, but I seethed in silent fury for the remainder of the book.
When not out raping fifteen-year-old girls (yep, he does that), Covenant spends most of the novel whinging. He moans at women, children, giants, and himself. For me to warm to him, a Fantasy protagonist does not have to be a moralistic, happy-go-lucky do-gooder – he just has to have some balls. I found myself wondering if Donaldson was trying to imply that Covenant’s balls had rotted off due to his leprosy, so relentlessly miserable and craven is he.
I may read the rest of the Chronicles, but I’m not sure I want to put myself through such turmoil. I have heard that T-Cov becomes a little braver in the later books, but as far as I’m concerned the gulf he has to overcome between cowardice and manliness is so huge that I fear it is insurmountable. If I happen to hear that in the first chapter of The Illearth War Covenant whips out his Death Staff and smashes the head off one of the venerable Lords for giving him some lip, then rides to Mount Thunder (note the shit name) on the back of a Fire Lion (again) to ram said staff up the phantom asshole of Lord Foul himself, then I will certainly consider reading that volume.
But until then I’m not going near the leper.