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Onyx reviews: Fatal Revenant by Stephen R. Donaldson

Fatal Revenant is the second volume in the third and last chronicles of Thomas Covenant, leper, white gold wielder, ur-Lord and chronic unbeliever, so called because he refused to believe that the Land and anything that transpired in it were real. Though these recent installments in Stephen R. Donaldson's epic fantasy series bear Covenant's name, thus far the story belongs to Linden Avery, Covenant's erstwhile lover.

Linden's autistic, adopted son, Jeremiah, has been imprisoned by Lord Foul, the Despiser, the bane of the Land, the place Thomas Covenant and Linden encounter when they go through the looking glass, so to speak. It is a far simpler place than the world they leave behind, but it is a place of magic and power, giants and ogres—all manner of creatures both good and ill.

Linden Avery is a doctor, but she's also a mother, and it is this aspect of her personality which comes to the fore when Jeremiah is taken from her. She's like the angry mother bear people are warned about. Anyone getting between her and her child does so at his peril.

After ages and millennia, Lord Foul is still single minded in his purpose. All he wants is to shatter the Arch of Time and free himself to wreak havoc on the Land. He is evil incarnate.

In the time of the third chronicles, the Land is a shadow of its former self. The once dignified Haruchai are now the unbelievers, skeptical of Linden's intentions. For hundreds of years, they have been revising history to downplay the magic of Earthpower, aided by a phenomenon known as Kevin's Dust, which thwarts Linden.

Unable to rely on her Earthsense, she finds support from unlikely sources, including from former enemies. At the same time she has acquired a new cadre of enemies, including the Elohim, the self-absorbed ancient ones, and the Insequent, rivals of the Elohim, powerful, mysterious creatures in their own right.

Linden wants to save the Land from the bane that has despoiled it, but her primary goal is to free her son from Lord Foul's grasp. In the closing pages of The Runes of the Earth, Thomas Covenant—who died saving the Land at the end of the second chronicles—showed up at the gates of Revelstone during a siege by the ferocious demondim, who have access to the power of the Illearth Stone thanks to a caesura—or Fall—one of the rifts in time caused by Covenant's ex-wife Joan's madness. In his company: Jeremiah, who is cured of his autism.

Though Covenant and Jeremiah stand before, they aren't fully present. Covenant has somehow bent the Arch of Time to his will, allowing them to be in two places at once. Covenant is still locked in time, and Jeremiah is still being tormented by Foul.

Linden hears her son speak for the first time, though she doesn't always care for what he has to say, or the way he says it. She isn't permitted to touch him or Covenant, because her Earthpower, manifest in the Staff of Law she wields, will break the spell and send them away. As always, Covenant is infuriating, both to Linden and the reader. Covenant has never been an easy character to like, but this tormented, "reincarnated" version is rude, dismissive and distant.

Through the use of Jeremiah's magic, Linden is transported far into the past, to the time of Lord Berek, when the original "half hand" is just beginning to understand the power of the Land. Finding Berek isn't their objective, though—Covenant, Jeremiah and Linden are destined for the rivers of power flowing beneath Melenkurion Skyweir, where Elena, daughter of Covenant, once acquired the Power of Command and used it to break the Law of Life. This return to an ancient time gives Donaldson the opportunity to unravel the origins of some of the Land's legends, looking at familiar events from a different perspective.

Linden, Covenant and Jeremiah are accompanied on this journey by the Theomach, one of the Insequent, who knows much but says little to aid Linden through a web of mystery and lies. Everyone's purposes are veiled—even Linden's. Her trek across the ancient version of the Land is arduous but necessary, though she must be constantly wary of doing anything that might disturb the Arch of Time.

Many characters readers will be familiar with from the seven previous books in the complex series return, including the Waynhim, the Viles, the sand gorgons, and the giants, one of which has a vendetta against Linden. The true natures of characters like the Mahdoubt are revealed, while enigmas like Anele remain veiled.

After a devastating revelation in the long-ago time, Linden returns to the present. The second half of Fatal Revenant deals with her efforts to lead her team to Andelain in search of the Krill of Loric. Linden's Earthpower, symbolized by the Staff of Law, and the wild power of Covenant's white gold ring, are anathema to each other, but she needs their combined force if she is to rescue her son from Lord Foul. The krill, the legendary mystical dagger, will enable her to unify these two powers. Those who oppose her fear that her hidden agenda will cause her to unleash destructive power that will exceed that of Kevin Landwaster, whose despair lay waste to the Land for millennia. Those who support her are troubled by her self-doubt but facilitate her nonetheless. And in the end, a cliffhanger will have readers waiting until the next installment appears to learn whether her determination was right or not.

The Covenant books have never been easy reading. They aren't light fantasy and they aren't written for a fifth grader. Donaldson's vocabulary is prodigious. Many of the words he uses seem to be made up but are, in fact, real (if obscure) English words, which may send many readers to the dictionary. His syntax is complex. Lengthy passages of dialog are broken into multiple paragraphs without attribution, which requires sharp wits and focused reading to keep track of who is saying what.

These mechanical issues aside, it's hard to love Donaldson's protagonists. Over the years, Thomas Covenant has been cantankerous and contrary to the extreme. Linden Avery is not much better in terms of being a proactive hero. She knows what she wants—or at least she thinks she does—but she is often reticent, secretive, stubborn and diffident. Given the types of entities determined to thwart her, it's small wonder. Even her supposed allies have the power to send her reeling through time. She has little power to compare—just a piece of wood and a wedding ring.

The real testament to Donaldson's storytelling ability is that he makes readers interested in spite of his protagonists' shortcomings. He has a vision of the Land that makes it seem real and potent and worth of being saved. He has picked up the pace somewhat in the second (of four) installment, staging elaborate battles and pushing his characters through real hazards.

Many readers around the world are waiting for the third installment in the final series of a fantasy creation that rivals The Lord of the Rings in scope and imagination. 

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