It is fun to listen to Veronica Belmont mangle names of authors on the Sword & Laser podcast, even if she only does that for effect. Most S & L episodes include Veronica and her co-host Tom Merritt reading out, or stumbling over, a list of the coming week’s Sci-Fi and Fantasy releases. Despite the amusing mispronunciations, that segment of the podcast comes over as a tedious litany of unlikely titles and unknown author names and I tend to tune out fairly rapidly.
My ears did though prick up this week when Veronica mentioned “The Last Dark” by Stephen Donaldson, or rather unceremoniously gabbled it along with all the other titles on the list. I had honestly forgotten that the very last instalment of very long-running (and unnecessarily extended) Thomas Covenant series was finally about to be with us. This will be book 10. I read book 9, “Against All Things Ending”, in December 2010 and distinctly recall that it was an absolute pig to get through.
I will obviously read The Last Dark. I can’t abandon the series now, having stuck with it this far, but neither could I say that I was positively looking forward to it.
I read the original trilogy, the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, while at University and found it to be captivating. From the off it had the anti-hero, angst, self-doubt, unbelief, agonising over past and future deeds, battle with despite and all that. But the dark aspects were counterbalanced by positive characters, rewarding relationships and delightful flights of imagination and use of magic.
The story had truly run its course with the conclusion of the second trilogy, and I was frankly surprised when The Runes of the Earth, the first book in the Final Chronicles, came out in 2004 after a gap of close on 20 years. I wondered if it was just a belated effort to cash in on the success of the earlier books. Maybe Donaldson has not managed to come up with that big a hit since. Either way, I’d have been perfectly happy if the Final Chronicles had captured the same magic (no pun intended) as the first six books but I’ve found them all pretty turgid so far. The pace tends to be ponderous and the atmosphere has become relentlessly bleak. The protagonists are either in extreme peril from which they escape by doing awful things, or tearing themselves apart over whatever the awful things were that they had to do. There is no relief from it. It would be nice if The Last Dark were a tiny bit cheerier but I rather suspect there is a clue in the title.
Incidentally, history is repeating itself in a way as I only knew that the second book in the Final Chronicles, Fatal Revenant, was out because I spotted it in a bookshop at Boston Airport while waiting for a flight, back in 2008, by which time it had been out for about a year.