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Onyx reviews: Against All Things Ending by Stephen R. Donaldson

When Linden Avery summoned Thomas Covenant back from the Arch of Time at the end of Fatal Revenant, she broke the laws of the Land and awoke the Worm at the World's End. As might be gleaned from the creature's name, this is bad news. The Worm represents balance in the universe. If there is a creator, there must also be an agent of ultimate destruction. The last time the Worm was nearly roused was when Covenant and Linden traveled to the Isle of the One Tree in an attempt to retrieve the Staff of Law.

However, the Worm is only one of their problems. Linden is also determined to rescue her autistic adopted son, Jeremiah, who is under the control of a croyel, a succubus attached to his neck. Covenant wants to deal with his ex-wife, Joan, who is possessed by a raver and uses the power of her wedding ring to create destructive rifts in time called caesures. Covenant's son, Roger, is still determined to defeat his father, and an angry Elohim, Kastenessen, attacks the fellowship any time the madman Anele comes into contact with the ground. The Humbled, stubborn Haruchai maimed to resemble Covenant, think Linden is worse than Kevin Landwaster, defying her at every step. Their ultimate enemy, though, is Lord Foul, who is determined to break free from the Arch of Time and destroy existence. Over the course of Against All Things Ending, the third of four in the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Linden and her followers will encounter more adversaries, including the determined Feroce, the acidic skurj and She Who Must Not Be Named.

Gathered in Andelain is a large host that accepts the task of attempting to mitigate the damage Linden wrought in restoring Covenant to life. Covenant isn't much help at first. His leprosy is back, and he's spent so long encompassing all of time that he gets lost in his thoughts and in his memories of the entire history of time, ending up in fugues that are difficult to interrupt. Sometimes a slap in the face or a punch is required, something many characters are only too wiling to deliver. Though his presence is being felt more and more in each volume of these final chronicles, the focus is still primarily on Linden Avery, who wields both the Staff of Law and Covenant's ring.

The overlarge cast of would-be heroes consists of numerous giants, the Haruchai Stave, the Humbled, a few Ramen, the mad Anele, a man named Liand, Infelice of the Elohim, and the Harrow, one of the mysterious and aloof Insequent. The group is so large that it seems paralyzed. It's almost impossible for them to arrive at a consensus about what to do next, and any time something happens, it takes pages to report every character's reactions, which hinders the pacing during the book's first half.

Some characters—Linden Avery in particular—seem to lack a sense of urgency concerning the Land's impending doom. They spend a lot of time dithering over their personal and interpersonal issues. They hash over every bad decision they ever made and agonize over every possible course of action. Self-loathing is a common trait among them, as is stubbornness. One of the most frustrating aspects of the series is the fact that characters willfully resist offering words of comfort or consolation at moments when to do so would alter and improve relationships. The only cheerful ray of light in the group is another Insequent named the Ardent, who is sent to guarantee that the Harrow keeps his promises to Linden. He's a bit of a buffoon, corpulent and armed with multicolored streamers that facilitate his powers, and something of a deus ex machina in that he can transport the entire host when it needs to get somewhere.

As is the case in many fantasy novels, the biggest antagonists remain offstage. The Worm at the World's End is little more than a rumor, and Lord Foul's power is expressed mostly through his minions, rarely in person. Most of the time, Linden and Covenant aren't sure where to turn next. They have no idea where Jeremiah is being held, nor where Joan is hiding or how to get the upper hand with Roger and Kastenessen. All they can do is stumble about blindly and trust that, when the time comes, someone will do something right to salvage the moment. They aren't great planners, to say the least.

Both Linden and Covenant had leadership thrust upon them, and they resist the mantle. Even though they have triumphed over powerful enemies in the past, they argue (usually to deaf ears) that their successes relied on the assistance of others, some of whom paid the ultimate price. As putative heroes, their value systems are virtual inverses: Linden would sacrifice the world to save her son, whereas Covenant sacrificed his daughter, Elena, with barely a second thought in order to further their mission and he is intent on destroying Roger, his son with Joan.

The book takes a while to get moving, but it covers a fair amount of ground in its nearly 600 pages. It isn't a swift read, in part because Donaldson's prodigious vocabulary will probably send even the most erudite readers to the dictionary. Also, Covenant and Linden have seen a lot of the Land's history and their course takes them to many places from earlier adventures. They reminisce about incidents from previous millennia, or repeat enigmatic statements that have been made to them by other characters while they attempt to ferret out their underlying meaning.

Covenant and Linden actually accomplish some of their main objectives, though at a high price. The "fellowship" is subdivided into smaller groups as their goals multiply over the course of the book, and even Linden and Covenant are no longer together in the end. As the series comes to a conclusion, Donaldson becomes more cavalier about the fates of some characters. The book features a number of (arguably heroic) deaths, although it's hard to become attached to many of the ancillary characters because they tend to blend together. 

The stage is set for the conclusion of a saga that has been doled out in pieces over the past decade, and a series that has been around for over thirty years.

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