The Runes of the Earth: The first of four volumes of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
Donaldson's earlier two trilogies follow Thomas Covenant's quests through The Land to thwart the evil Lord Foul. It has been over twenty years since these books were released, now we can return to The Land. In this volume, it is Dr Linden Avery who is the lead character.
Slow and ponderous, the plot pauses at every opportunity for navel gazing. To read this as merely a story is to be disappointed. The action is too slow, the descriptive metaphors deep and frequent. The vocabulary will test many readers. I found myself referring to a dictionary several times. However, this is a must read for those who fondly remember the earlier books, but with the slow pace, I don't see the nostalgia value alone sustaining readers through all four new volumes. That said, I greatly enjoyed this book because it reintroduced me to the peoples and features of The Land, and I was reminded how I loved it all as I read about them years ago. Not only did I remember Donaldson's stories, I was taken back to where and when I was when I read the earlier books. Donaldson has power to evoke memories, set and examine moral issues and to inspire reflection. As I read, I would continually ask myself: What would I do in this character's situation? This is why I say Donaldson writes good religious fiction. His characters search for meaning in their lives and their peoples' histories. He doesn't try to deliver moral messages but leads the characters into tests of faith. Some grow in their understanding of their reality, while others shrink their horizons to exclude the dilemmas, and some do both.
This is a moral story like the earlier books, but with a new, more mature perspective than the earlier series. In the earlier books the emphasis was on personal identity and development, however this story examines the ethical issues of protecting one's child, of community responsibility and of trust. A parent protecting their child has an ethical certitude where other issues no longer matter. Characters are tested to put their faith in someone whose judgement they trust, but then follow them into moral decisions they would take themselves.
I had some trouble with the plot, in accepting the communities Linden encounters could be so lacking in leadership. It seems these societies statically waited thousands of years for her to arrive, to challenge their values and motivate them to fix their problems. For she is a reluctant hero and would rather be a quiet healer, but above all she is a mother whose child is threatened.
If you have not read the earlier volumes, you can start with this one safely as it is not lacking in explanations of the history of The Land. It is not a grab and hold the reader adventure yarn, but a deep, heavy and challenging tome. Do not read it to escape reality, like many light fantasy novels, but rather to reflect upon the real world.
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