The Illearth War follows straight on from the events in Lord Foul's Bane and just as Thomas Covenant is getting used to the idea that his recent experiences were just a dream he is again summoned to the Land.
On his return however he discovers that 40 years have passed in his absence with the Council of Lords in need of the wild magic of white gold against Lord Foul who has recovered the Illearth Stone, an ancient source of great evil.
It's funny sometimes how reading a book at a different point in your life can make a huge difference as to how you feel about the story, it does of course also make a difference what mood you are too. As I sit reading this I am in a forced convelescence due to a severe upper respiritory tract infection that has not only left me without a voice but also pretty much bed-ridden too. I had been meaning to read this second volume the first Thomas Covenant trilogy and decided this would be the perfect time.
I had previously started this book right after finishing the previous one and I don't think I was in the right frame of mind at the time to read it, abandoning the attempt after a few chapters rather than spoil the experience. This time around however was very different and I was able to really engage with the story and understand the character of Covenant. One of the real strengths of this is series is how different it is, not only with the ultimate anti-hero as the central protagonist but also the willingness of the author not to take the obvious routes through the story and not always go for the easy, happy outcome.
The character of Thomas Covenant is not only richly complicated but also wonderfully flawed, conditioned into never accepting false hope or any other reality by his illness he is completely unable to accept the Land and it's inhabitants. The incident that happened in the last novel has a number of important repercussions and Covenants own severe guilt colours much of the dialogue and influences a number of his decisions. It seems to me that the author used this perpetrated crime as a method of distancing the reader from the protagonist and it does still do that, a fantastic vehicle to explore the meaning of forgiveness and the effects such a crime can have on those around the victim, as well as the victim themselves.
As the novel progresses we begin to understand that Covenant's viewpoint does give him a unique position and a more realistic, if occasionally fatalistic perspective which ultimately leads him to becoming the voice of reason amidst the chaos. There is also a big lesson on expectations here, the effects that people's unrealistic expectations of others can have in situations along with those running themes which include the acceptence of those who are different.
If anything The Illearth War is an improvement on it's predecessor, a more powerful tale and one that feels like an "Empire Strikes Back" moment in the trilogy. Donaldsons prose is incredibly rich, a complex and sophisticated narrative that demands your undivided attention but one that really deserves it too. The author continues to defy conventions and instead we are treated to a unique voice which is richly dark and deliciously anti-heroic.
If you are looking for a happy, fluffy story where all ends well then this isn't the book for you - at least this stage in the story anyway, however if you are looking for an exemplorary example of just how different fantasy fiction can be while still maintaining it's traditional roots then look no further.
Written on Friday 27th July 2012 by Antony.
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