Lord Foul’s Bane
by Stephen Donaldson (1977)
This was a 3.5er where I was leaning 4 for most of the book — it was original and compelling and well-written enough for that — but just left me with sort of a sour taste at the very end. Usually I’d round up in such a case, but the treatment of the central thematic conflict just broke my will with its tediousness.
The story of Thomas Covenant, self-proclaimed Unbeliever in the dream-like Land, is sort of standard fantasy fare with the requisite journeys and wizards and beasts and awkward names. In parts it seems shamelessly ripped off from Tolkien. What separates it is our protagonist, who is pretty much the opposite of any hero you’ve ever met, maybe the most “anti” Anti-Hero ever: not only is he a leper but he’s a self-pitying asshole on top of it. That’s cool, I can get behind it.
It makes it a little harder to get behind him when his first essential action in the new land is to rape the first person he meets, but okay, I’ll go with you (and while any justification when it happens is conspicuously absent, I do think it’s given a proper explanation later in the book).
I’m not enough of a fantasy expert to know how original the tropes here are, the different magics and peoples he encounters. . . it certainly has a sort of Middle-Earthy vibe, but kind of a demented version thanks to its demented protagonist. But I can say the world feels well-built. Characters besides the protagonist are developed (Atiaran and the Giant being the best examples) and they behave in unpredictable yet believable ways.
There is a little bit of 1st-book-itis going on, with spots of poor writing and dialogue, but overall I was impressed by its quality. In fact some of the goings-on suffer from being too obscure, in that Donaldson maybe expected too much from his readers. I’d rather the author err on that side than the other.
My main issue is this central thematic conflict I’ve alluded to. It revolves around Covenant’s leprosy and having been zapped out of “reality” and into this “dream,” and as far I can tell the dilemma is that he cannot accept this dream as reality because then he will lose his capacity to cope with his leprosy in the real world (this capacity depends on accepting that recovery is hopeless). So while he wants to believe in the Land, he can’t because doing so will kill him when he returns “home.”
I think I get this, but this internal conflict was apparently way more compelling to Donaldson than it was to me, because I neither cared about it nor believed in it. Maybe it’s just because I don’t have leprosy and don’t know how big a deal this would be to a leper, but this conflict was either not presented/explained/developed well, or it was simply not a credible conflict to begin with. I lean toward the latter just because I can think of no way to have presented it that wouldn’t have me wanting to skip over the passages.
I mean really, how many people if they were zapped from one reality to another would be so paralyzed by metaphysical analysis? If I bleed and shit, you can bet your ass I’m going to believe in this reality because I’ve never done either in a dream. And I’ll deal with my leprosy when/if I get back, because that’s apparently not an issue here. There — all settled, no?
So yeah, that was tedious. I’m still compelled enough by the world to pick up the next in the series, The Illearth War, I just hope there’s less of this internal dilly-dallying. Judging by the page count I may be in for more of the same. . .