Saturday, December 31, 2011

The most important failure in modern fantasy fiction Pt 4

Flaws of the First Chronicles

I wouldn't be referring to Covenant as a failure all this time if I didn't ultimately see it as a missed opportunity. Despite my admiration for the Chronicles as an attempt at a ethical project, a world-building exercise and a subversion of high fantasy, it's undone at the same time by some serious weaknesses.

Most of the Covenant-mocking I've seen starts with his use of language - it's the kind of book where both the characters and the narrator drop in words like 'inexculpable' and 'anneal' as casually as they can - which is to say not very. But I've read Poe, I've read Lovecraft. I can take this. And least Donaldson's trying to be creative with his clunkiness in a rather charming way.

The poetry is universally bad, however. This is one bit of Tolkien I wish he hadn't imitated.

But I have bigger fish to fry with my critical Earthpower (Critpower?).

Protagonist problems

Covenant is meant to be a troubled character - embittered, suffering from an incurable disease, and stunned by the health and truth of The Land. Donaldson loads his back-story - I think - with enough woe to make his dilemma believable.

But Donaldson has Covenant do something upon arrival in The Land in Lord Foul's Bane to further complicate his relationship with the fantasy and purposely alienate the reader. Covenant rapes the young woman, Lena, who welcomes him to her village.

It's as shocking in print as it is in bare summary here. If the Amazon reviews are anything to go by, this kills the book outright for many readers.

To be fair to the author, he doesn't let Covenant off the hook for this. Not only could the first half of LFB be subtitled Self-laceration against a fantasy backdrop, but over the course of the three books Covenant gradually reaps the terrible consequences of his action.

But by destroying any empathy you might feel for the central character, the crime reduces the impact of the central question of the Chronicles: is an illusion worth fighting for? Instead, you get the pop reduction of Covenant to asshole leper hero.

It doesn't help the book, and it doesn't help Donaldson's problems with women in his novels either.

Why you thought this was a good idea I really do not know

The Chronicles actually have a lot of strong women - warriors, Lords, village elders - but when I sat down and thought about it the safest place for a female character to be in Stephen Donaldson's fiction is in the second rank. That way you get to be awesome without stepping into the authorial line of fire.

Let's take a look at the main female characters in Covenant and what happens to them, shall we?

Lena - rape and murder (the second not by Covenant)
Atiaran (Lena's mother) - despair and death by magical accident
Elena (Lena and Covenant's daughter) - killed by a ghost and brought back from the dead so she can be degraded and killed again.

Now that I think of it, pretty much every one of Donaldson's leading women in his other novels gets thrown in a dungeon and tortured - sometimes sexually - at some point or other. None of it is written to titilate, but if he's trying to make a serious point it's eluding me too.

But that's even before we get to the crowning WTF moment of the entire series on book 2, the Illearth War: Back in the Land after weeks of his time and years of their time, Covenant encourages his daughter Elena's sexual overtures to him so she - now a Lord and super-jedi - can take on the role of saviour of The Land and let him off the hook.


And for good measure



I can guarantee you that no-one who gets this far into the trilogy is wondering if Covenant will reconcile his disbelief in The Land with the need to act to protect it. They are all - all of them, darn it - thinking "Dude! This is wrong on so many levels my head hurts"

And these flaws are too big for the reader to ignore.

In writing these reflections, I've discovered that I like the idea of Covenant better than I do the reality. Much as I might appreciate what Donaldson tried to do, as all the bits in The Illearth War and The Power That Preserves without Covenant are great, as the trilogy fizzes intermittently with great ideas, he undermines his own foundations with narrative decisions which seem designed to alienate the reader and cause me to question the merit of the entire project.

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