The Illearth War by Stephen Donaldson
Reading The Illearth War (1978), the second book in Stephen Donaldson’s THE CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, I can’t help but be reminded of The Empire Strikes Back. This is in comparison to the strong THE LORD OF THE RINGS feel exuded by Lord Foul’s Bane, the first book in the series. Both Illearth and Empire are the middle story in a trilogy (and like THOMAS COVENANT, STAR WARS has since spawned additional trilogies), and the outcome is not as cotton-candy as the first in their respective series. This is an advantage, rather than a disadvantage.
Having awoken back in the real world at the end of Lord Foul’s Bane, Thomas Covenant is trying to cope with his dreams (as he believes them to be) of the Land and his feelings about reality based on these dreams. With a newfound sense of bravery to behave as normally as possible with leprosy, he sets out into the world beyond his door. But it isn’t long before he’s back in the Land. Forty years have passed compared to his two weeks in the real world, and Covenant shakes his head in further disbelief: if ever there was proof it was all a dream, the time disparity is it. Waking up in Revelstone, he learns that a new set of Lords, overseen by the enigmatic Elena, have replaced those who died at the end of Lord Foul’s Bane. Well versed in the wards of magic, the Lords inform him of Foul’s movements in the time that has passed. Foul has somehow made the giants disappear and massed a huge army, and the good people of the Land will need to defend themselves sooner rather than later against his looming machinations.
Donaldson also introduces an important new character in The Illearth War, Hile Troy. Having one day found himself in the Land in the same bewildering fashion as Covenant, Hile, however, immediately accepts the reality of his situation and sets out to help the Lords of Revelstone. Blind but able to see with the help of hurtloam, Hile is a brilliant strategist who proves instrumental in aligning the Lord’s forces against Foul. If Covenant’s adventures in The Illearth War can be compared to Luke’s in The Empire Strikes Back, then Hile’s are comparable to Han Solo’s. Warring directly against Foul with the might of the Lords and Ramen behind him, their fight is at the forefront while Covenant’s, singular in purpose, moves in the background.
In my opinion, The Illearth War is better than the previous novel for a simple reason: where Lord Foul’s Bane followed the standard fantasy quest to the most geometrically perfect T, The Illearth War is quite unpredictable — just like The Empire Strikes Back. Readers who have read the first book will approach the second with many natural, preconceived notions, but Donaldson maintains suspense throughout by developing the plot in less-than-standard, almost subversive fashion. This undoubtedly improves the quality of the series.
This is not to say that all of The Illearth War’s plot developments are intriguing, however. While the first 100 and the last 150 pages balance pace and description well, the middle section of the novel is plodding, plodding, plodding. Like a messenger arriving at the throne of a foreign king, Donaldson feels the need to go through all the motions of “proper story setup” before getting down to real business. He squeezes every ounce of dialogue and nuance from scenes, and in turn greatly slows the narrative. In this respect, the novel is more classic in feel. It perhaps would have been better to collate the expository moments into a handful of scenes rather than spread them out over every single little teeny tiny tiptoe step of the journey. The middle section is particularly frustrating for its ability to go everywhere but nowhere, the plot drowned in rigid emotion that does not quite fit the lack of tension in the backing story. Like having to go to the grocery store, the seamstress, the laundromat, the gas station, the vet, the post office, etc. etc., etc. before the cinema, Donaldson should have simply driven us to the mall and left us for an ice cream and a touch of window browsing before starting the film.
The Illearth War nevertheless is an improvement upon Lord Foul’s Bane. While readers must deal with prolonged emotional extemporizing in the middle section, the opening and conclusion grab the reader and take the story in unexpected directions — as Lord Foul’s Bane did not. Donaldson’s writing is exactly the same as that of the first novel (he wrote the trilogy in one go), so readers who enjoyed the first for style will find no fault in the second. The same quirky naming conventions and fairy-tale-with-gravitas tone pervade the story. An expanding middle entry to a trilogy, The Illearth War has the series finding its feet and moving with far less stereotypical purpose, and Covenant’s plight coming into a stronger light.