Seth's Reviews > The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever by Stephen R. Donaldson
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Aug 17, 2007

it was amazing
bookshelves: masterpieces, fantasy, sf-f-h
Recommended for: existentialists, crossover fantasy fans, almost any fantasy fan
Read in January, 1987

This series is somewhat infamous: it's widely regarded as brilliant (which it is), it's widely considered depressing (which it can be), the hero is often unappealing (which is the point), and many find the trilogy at least 25% too long (which is true). Plus, the follow-on trilogy tells almost the same story with almost the same point to it.

So, what's the fuss about?

Covenant isn't "Tolkien with the serial numbers filed off." That it holds together with a complete fantasy story in a clear, magical fantasy world and you never once want to compare it to Middle Earth is a good enough start to recommend reading it. Covenant is a fantasy The Stranger, taking a disaffected character who denies all responsibility in his life and feels completely disconnected from the world around him and giving him the power of life and death.

The character Thomas Covenant is definitely unappealing. I put the book down and had to restart it 3 times after a scene in the first book where he--refusing to believe that the woman he was with was anything other than a dream--committed a rape. The morality of how you treat not-real people is a regular theme of Donaldson's and this is his first and harshest demonstration of the subject. It's not easy to read and it's not easy to go on with a protagonist like that.

Watching him slowly learn guilt, remorse, and repentence takes the next two-and-a-half books. As many people comment, that portion of the story is a downer.

Alongside the moral tale we have the fantasy epic: a modern American man returning to a fantasy world (The Land) several times seeing the consequences of his involvement in their epic battle against their own satan-figure: Lord Foul, who wants to break the Arch of the World and release himself into our universes.

Everyone in The Land believes that Covenant is the "White Gold Wielder" who carries power strong enough to break the arch or to stop Foul. This sets up the fantasy/action story, where the people of The Land try to convince Covenant to learn to use his powers and to use them for the greater good and Foul tries to get the power.

Since Covenant only visits The Land when he's suffered a head injury or some other strange type of sleep, he believes The Land is a fantasy of his own imagination.

The people in The Land don't understand why he doesn't believe in them, but they do see how broken he himself is and realize that he won't be able to help them unless he heals from his personal traumas and builds some positive self-concept.

It's a strange twist on the "apprentice who just needs confidence" trope and his mistakes during the early period are all the more appalling because he doesn't feel guilty.

Throughout the book, there is not one scene in The Land that doesn't include Covenant. At the end, we are left with no proof one way or another that The Land is a real alternate world where Covenant travelled. Perhaps his Unbelief at the beginning was correct. The existential element of the story asks why we care which is real; he does what he does and the morality comes from his making the choices.

That's heady stuff for a lightning-bolt-slinging fantasy series and it's not for everyone. It isn't modern "dark fantasy" with supposed anti-heroes who are just ashamed of being good at heart, it's real fantasy where the character development is on as epic a scale as the good-vs-evil plot.

This isn't bus reading and no book is right for everyone, but it's an audacious and brilliant series that flexes fantasy's power to drive character. It's also a fun read with the single scariest magical nasties in the genre (the Reavers).

The second series? It's different on the moral tale while following the same general plot arc, showing how the character involved changes the story. Not worth reading for everyone, but worth a shot if you like the first or if you are interested in the structure of fiction.
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02/21/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-7 of 7) (7 new)

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Dr M Warning! This comment may contain minor spoilers.

A very good and interesting review! I liked reading it, and even though we come to somewhat different conclusions you and I, you make several good points.

One thing makes me wonder though: You say that "Throughout the book, there is not one scene in The Land that doesn't include Covenant." Oh yes, there are! Several, at that. Both the second and the third volumes have long passages where Covenant most certainly isn't present. In some scenes he is somewhere else in The Land, in at least one other he is not even in The Land. There are also numerous places where the story is told from the perspective of some other character. This is one of my main points of criticism, because it breaks the illusion, and makes Covenant much less interesting (and much more pointlessly annoying).


Ainsley What a good review of the first series. Agree entirely. The Chronicles are as much a story about self discovery and resilience as they are about the traditional Tolkien-inspired motifs.


Alan Thanks Seth...you have saved me the trouble of a review. Nicely summed up and I agree totally!


Victor Kiuhan Hi Seth, I liked your review very much. I almost had to force myself to keep reading the series because I disliked the main character SO much. I fantasized about entering the novels and strangling the idiot several times. I understand that that is why the books are brilliant but the lack of pay off at the end is why I rate these books two stars. I only give four or more stars to books that I have re-read or would consider re-reading and I would never read these books again. It is a very good art piece but incredibly frustrating to think about even two decades after reading them.


Nico Rousseau Good review, Seth! Much still too be said, but i just want to comment on one thing. Nobody seem to mention Thomas' condition, explaining why he is such a "negative", unlikeable character. He has leprosy! Which means no life, no friends, no social interaction and a multitude of other complications concerning taking care of your physical and mental health. He is who he is because of the precautions he take to conserve himself. Once that is understood the character can be be fealt sorry for. Apologies if anyone think this is a spoiler, but this is revealed in the first chapter of the book.


message 6: by Maggie (new)

Maggie Bliven Nico, and Seth. I appreciate your reviews. I was throughly enthralled with the books, the story, and even in some cases the characters.
It is an extremely hard and intense story that not everyone, or even the majority of people, will stay with. I had to, I had to see if Covenant would change, adjust, become relevant...whatever...
Some of the scenes where he is so oblivious and cavalier in his demeanor are had to take, but it does go to his illness, his torture of soul and lack of belief/faith, I. Everything, including himself. It is long and at times tedious and repetitive but I'd start over from the beginning and I'd see a different story in some places.
Just my opinion, and certainly NOT for everyone!


message 7: by Liz (new) - added it

Liz Maggie, you make good points. I read these books so long ago. I wasn't even in my 20s. Reading these reviews, I want to revisit them. I'm sure there are themes that went undiscovered during my first reading and 5 decades of living will certainly inform my take on the characters. I was so forgiving of Thomas the first time I read he's story, I wonder if I will judge him more harshly were I too read these books again. I found the books compelling when I first read them and hope for a similar experience when I go back to read them again.


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