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Onyx reviews: The Runes of the Earth by Stephen R. Donaldson

Twenty years after the second chronicles of Thomas Covenant, Stephen R. Donaldson has returned to his hallmark fantasy series with the first of four volumes billed as the "last chronicles." Covenant was a writer, husband and father inexplicably afflicted with leprosy. Abandoned, he withdrew to an isolated farm where he adapted and survived.

Equally inexplicably, he was drawn into the Land, where he is regarded as the fulfillment of an age-old legend. His white gold wedding ring contains awesome power to aid or destroy the Land. If wielded carelessly, its power could shatter the arch of time that keeps Lord Foul, the Despiser, imprisoned on Earth. The rituals he learned to survive his leprosy did not allow him to accept the wonders of the Land, so he denied their reality, earning him the title Unbeliever.

At the end of the second chronicles, Covenant sacrificed himself to defeat Lord Foul and his ring passed to his companion, Dr. Linden Avery. The Runes of the Earth starts ten years later. Linden runs a hospital where one of her most perplexing patients is Thomas's ex-wife Joan, who is insane. Her son, Roger, demands that she be released into his care, but Linden believes that Lord Foul is once again plotting against the Land and she is reluctant to release Joan because she, too, bears a white gold ring.

Millennia have passed in the Land when Linden is once again drawn. Some things are familiar—she arrives on Kevin's Watch—but much has changed. There are no Lords keeping despite at bay, and a haze called Kevin's Dirt blocks the Land's awesome Earthpower.

Worse, the Haruchai, once the Lords' loyal servants, have appointed themselves Masters of the Land. They consider Earthpower a bane, and seek to eradicate it. So that no one remembers the way the Land was in its glory days, they have also worked to banish historical memory.

Joan, Roger, and Linden's adopted autistic son Jeremiah have also been drawn into the Land, but Linden arrives alone and her primary goal is to locate and save Jeremiah, who is in Lord Foul's clutches. She gathers traveling companions, including the lunatic Anele, former bearer of the now-lost Staff of Law; and Liand, a Mithil Stonedowner who seeks to learn what has been forbidden. She has no idea where to go, though, so her travels are aimless and she feels lost without Covenant's understanding of the Land.

Covenant is present through Linden's memories, but he has also found a way to communicate with her through Anele, and hints that he may return in a more tangible form as the series continues. However, he warns Linden that she is not to trust him because he is dead.

A hallmark of Donaldson's writing is that his characters are somewhat recalcitrant and trenchant, which may be occasionally frustrating. They dig in their heels, often act selfishly in—or irrationally against—their own best interests and are prone to dark moods. That the author is capable of making these deeply flawed characters heroic and admirable is a tribute to his skills.

After all this time, Donaldson has faithfully recaptured the sense of the Land and its mysteries. He has much in store for readers in the coming years—the last chronicles will not see completion for the better part of a decade—and it appears that with Linden's mastery of the white gold ring anything is possible, including travel through time, which means that old and familiar faces could reappear in future books.

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