fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Last Dark by Stephen DonaldsonThe Last Dark by Stephen R. Donaldson

With The Last Dark, Stephen R. Donaldson draws to a close not only his most recent tetralogy, but his entire ten-book epic centered on the travails of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, certainly one of the longest-lasting and most significant and influential characters in modern fantasy. No matter one’s feelings on the book itself (and mine were definitely mixed), the series as a whole stands as a towering achievement, one of those classic/canonical works of fantasy that any student of the genre has to wrestle with. Though I confess to some disappointment in these final few novels, the very ending left me feeling both satisfied and saddened. Satisfied because Donaldson ends the novel in an entirely fitting fashion and saddened because it is an ending.

As in the prior books of this LAST CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT (and I’m going to assume you’ve read those so will be freely tossing off names and terms), Covenant and Linden Avery, joined by various friends and not-so-much-friends (the Haruchai, Giants, Ramen, Ranyhyn, and other denizens of The Land) are faced with the literal end of the world. Not merely a Dark Lord rising and making the world oh-so-unpleasant, but the star-swallowing, sun-devouring, mountain-dissolving destruction of the world thanks to the awakening of the not-so-subtly-named Worm of the World’s End, who will not only destroy the world but also wreck the Arch of Time, thus freeing Lord Foul from his near-eternal prison. The Last Dark brings things to a fever pitch of urgency, as the end times are so close that our heroes can actually see the Worm eating the stars overhead and then moving across the Land itself toward them. Beset by Ravers, Covenant’s half-mad son, Sandgorgons, Skurj, Cavewights, Elohim, She-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, and fear of possession by Lord Foul himself (this particular fear belonging to Avery’s son Jeremiah), Covenant and Avery head toward a final confrontation they cannot hope to win.

The pace, as one might guess from the above not-even-complete list of players — for both good and ill — can be frantic at times. Fight scenes abound, as do great sacrifices. Even when characters aren’t fighting off evil creatures, they are battling the elements — climbing impossible cliff faces, racing floodwaters, dealing with time vortexes. But it wouldn’t be a Covenant novel if all those battles and suspense scenes weren’t interspersed with sections of introspection, self-doubt, self-loathing, philosophizing, questions over ethics and actions. And those abound as well; the novel after all is 500+ pages. And herein lies my biggest complaint, and it’s the same one I had with the last one. I’m just not sure all these pages are needed.

While in a vacuum, many of these scenes are absolutely top-notch, stylistically, and in terms of their impact on the reader — whether that impact be to evoke emotion, to provoke thought on deep issues of human nature, to simply excite and thrill via action — in the context of this series we’ve seen most of it before. We’ve seen impossible battles, even impossible ones against these very same creatures — the Ravers, the Sandgorgons, the Skurj. We’ve seen possession, multiple times. We’ve seen self-doubt and self-loathing (boy, have we seen self-doubt and self-loathing). We’ve seen Giants laugh despite all that surrounds them, but worse, we’ve seen that laughter remind Covenant of that first Giant (Saltheart Foamfollower) and heard him tell us how it reminds him of that first one. We’ve seen grand sacrifices (sometimes these exact same ones, though I won’t spoil them). As I said, in a vacuum many of these are great scenes, but nobody is coming to a book ten in a context-free vacuum.

Sure, sometimes these same actions/thoughts/themes are given to different characters. Jeremiah, for instance, gets to have his moments of self-pity and doubt, but he’s a teenager and so not only do these moments smack too much of been there-done that, they come off as far more trivial than earlier because he just sounds too often like your typical surly, truculent teen.

And yes, there is definite growth in these characters. Huge growth. Covenant, for instance goes from an utter victim when we first meet him (victim of leprosy, victim of those who would shun him, victim of his ex-wife) to victimizer in turn (not only generally by taking his anger and “unbelief” out on all around him, but also more repellently in one of the most risky and controversial scenes in fantasy, at least at the time and for years afterward) to reluctant, has-to-be-literally-dragged-along hero to the guy doing the dragging to a man of such self-knowledge and dignity and courage it almost hurts to consider. Avery makes a similar journey. As do entire groups — the Haruchai for instance. And finally, there is some major movement in terms of Avery and Covenant’s relationship. I’d just argue that this growth didn’t require four more books. Two, possibly even one (that might have been my preference) would have sufficed. Themes and character growth would still have been sufficiently explored but without so much repetition in both plot and thought.

In the limited context of this single novel, the familiarity issue raised itself in other ways as well. It doesn’t help that there seems an inordinate amount of minor but noticeable linguistic/dialogue repetition in this book, such as of the word “condign,” or that at least part of the very ending will seem a well-traveled road to most fantasy and science-fiction fans. And to be honest, the battle scenes began to feel a bit too similar so that I had to fight the urge to skim the latter ones:  small group, bad odds, sacrifices, eke out a victory via wild magic or something similar.

On a final note with regard to the level of familiarity, I do think there’s no doubt that some of it, much of it even, is purposely there to parallel earlier scenes and use that parallel imagery or structure to make a thematic point or to characterize. But it’s a fine line, a very fine line to walk, and I can’t say it was successful from my point of view.

There are certainly moments to cherish in The Last Dark. I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that despite my sense of familiarity, certain scenes with the Haruchai or the Giants or the like still had an impact, albeit a diluted one from earlier, similar scenes. And while I have I confess grown weary of some of the same-sounding philosophy, I appreciate the depths this novel plunges. Finally as I said, I do think the ending is perfectly appropriate, one that left me wholly satisfied (or nearly so) for a host of reasons, though I don’t want to go into them to avoid spoilers (anyone who has reached this far in a series deserves to enter it with eyes wide open).

It seems almost silly to give a rating to The Last Dark as it doesn’t seem to really matter. The book itself isn’t the point; it’s the journey one takes to finally arrive at it. Was I disappointed in it? Yes. Do I wish this latest Chronicles, these LAST CHRONICLES, had been whittled down to one or two novels rather than four? Yes. Would I ever tell anyone not to read them?  Just the opposite. For their depth of thought and character, for intellectual heft and for their moments of pure beauty and heartache, I place the CHRONICLES OF THOMAS COVENANT, all of them, on the must-read shelf of any serious fan.

The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever — (1977-2013) Publisher: He called himself Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever because he dared not believe in the strange alternate world in which he suddenly found himself. Yet he was tempted to believe, to fight for the Land, to be the reincarnation of its greatest hero…

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  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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