I'm back in Chicago! Wrote this up on the plane trip home. 29 hours of travel kills--my body is so confused right now...
The Illearth War is the second novel in Stephen R. Dondaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. Once again, this book review will start in the middle of a series—sorry, Internet! [Though I end up reviewing the Lord Foul’s Bane too…]
As before, there are likely to be [read: are] spoilers for the first two books of the trilogy.
I’ll start with a quick recap of the premise and my thoughts on the first book, Lord Foul’s Bane. This first book follows one Thomas Covenant, a man turned extremely bitter by his leprosy, and society’s reaction to it. While walking into town in a blatant defiance of those who fear his disease, Covenant is nearly hit by a far and wakes up in the Land—a mystical world beset by The Despiser, Corruption, Fangthane: Lord Foul. Covenant names himself The Unbeliever, as the healing power of the Land threatens to destroy all of the caution which is necessary for a leper to survive. He refuses to accept that the Land is anything more than a delusion.
Now, you might be thinking at this point that Covenant comes into his own and gathers the courage within himself to defeat Lord Foul. Think again.
Thomas Covenant in this first book is one of the least likable protagonists I have ever encountered. Only my sheer will to finish any book I start* carried me through at certain points, especially where Covenant rapes a sixteen-year-old girl. (It’s not explicit, for those worried about that—I actually had to reread it to make sure it actually happened, through my shock.)
The setting is also a problem in the first book. Donaldson has a nature crush on the Land, and just about every chapter has some new glorious vista that is described in tedious detail. When not a lot is happening, this gets tiresome, and it’s not helped that what does happen is usually not committed by the Unbeliever. I kind of felt like RPing a character in a campaign with a great setting, only to have the GMPC railroad me through a plot I was not invested in. In the end, Covenant returns to the “real world,” and has only been in a coma for a few hours.
On to The Illearth War! Let me start by saying that I was much more impressed by the sequel. While Covenant has been away for 5 weeks or so, the Land has progressed by 40 years. Foul’s army is ready to march upon the Land, and another man, Hile Troy from the “real” world has also been summoned and was put in command of the Land’s army.
In this book, Covenant is a much more sympathetic character. I only began to understand him at the end of Lord Foul’s Bane, and armed with that knowledge, his self-hatred and regret turn him from a whiny little caricature to a man who is deeply flawed in The Illearth War. He hates himself and everything he ever did in the Land, and cannot accept that even those he harmed forgive him, and he cannot accept the responsibility that the people of the Land lay on his shoulders.
The plot is also much more exciting than the Quest of the first book. The book is written in three parts, but contains four real storylines. The first part, Revelstone, sets up the action for the story. Not much need be said, plot-wise, although some nice character introduction and development occurs. The second part, The Warmark, follows Hile Troy as he leads the army of the Land against Fleshharrower, commander of Foul’s armies. This moved well, and was rather exciting, given that most of it was marching. Included in this was the third storyline, the Bloodguard’s mission to discover the fate of the Giants. Although it only comprised two chapters at different points in the book, I could not put these chapters down. They were the best parts of the book, in my opinion, building dread reminiscent of Lovecraft’s scarier work. The fact that certain elements were left unresolved makes me eager to read the next book of the series. The fate of the Bloodguard Korik is something I eagerly wish to know! Part Three is relatively short, and follows Covenant and the High Lord as they attempt to uncover a source of ancient power.
Overall? The Illearth War was well worth my time, and was a very good piece of High Fantasy of the old school. I’m eager to learn what happens to Korik, as well what the third Raver, Satansfist, has been up to. Donaldson corrects the mistakes of Lord Foul’s Bane, creating more three-dimensional characters and cutting back on the gratuitous descriptions of the Land. Whether or not the series is worth it will depend on the quality of The Power That Preserves, which I’ll get to as soon as I read it. When that’ll be? Not sure. Now that I have a social life again, I'll be reading a little less. But I've already started it.
*Except for Moby Dick, but one day I’ll slay that personal white whale. But dear God, Melville, have you ever heard of a bloody editor?! This is a rant for another day.