Runes of the Earth by Stephen R. Donaldson

Like so many of the characters within it, the greatest strength of The Runes of the Earth (Book 1 of The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant ) is also its greatest vulnerability. The book is a study in complexity.

The plot is intricately built and a joy to watch unfold, but it may be too involved for more casual fantasy readers. Those willing to pay careful and deliberate attention as they read will come to appreciate the author’s ability to weave a complicated plot in an elegant, neo-baroque style.

Those less willing will likely be too frustrated with the non-stop assault of obscure words (like nacre, scree, and cynosure) to make it to the wonder-filled payoffs that begin about a third of the way through this 500-page volume and do not stop until the very last page.

Another group who may find themselves disappointed are those coming into The Land for the first time. There is a lot of history to catch up on, even for those familiar with the series. Like the plot, The Land’s history has been minutely and elaborately constructed; so elaborately that it was deemed appropriate to include a dozen-page glossary of names and terms in the appendix.

That said, Runes does start with a breezy summary of the preceding six books that seemed to describe the themes of the earlier books much better than it did the actual plot events. This is fitting in a way; the development of theme is where the Thomas Covenant books (and this volume in particular) really shine.

The Runes of the Earth explores two intertwined ideas: the consequences of choosing a morally ambiguous course in the name of preserving the good, and the superiority of any well-intentioned action at all over giving in to the futility of despair and self-condemnation.

The dilemmas of each of the characters (and societies) found in this volume hammer home the positive and the negative results of every possible method of coping with a world where right and wrong refuse to come untangled.

Who will enjoy The Runes of the Earth ? Anyone troubled by living in just such a morally uncertain world. Anyone who has ever been tempted to throw up their hands and surrender to its injustices.

Don’t look to Stephen R. Donaldson to offer readers easy answers, because his moral is that there are none. But what you can expect is that he will show that it is possible to persevere in such a world; to find hope, and draw what sustenance we can from it.

Which may be the most we can ask of any piece of literature.

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