Donaldson, like him or not, is a major fantasist; and the completion of the tale of Thomas Covenant, after thirty-plus years, is clearly the completion of a major work, indeed his primary work.
To review: In the mid-'70s we were given (in a publishing pair with The Sword of Shanarra that launched the modern fantasy market) the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, a deeply flawed but important tale of a man who damns himself and seeks to exceed his damnation. There is no escaping the fact that the first important thing Covenant does in the Land is an inexcusable, horrible act of rape, one whose consequences extend out through the trilogy and, ultimately, the entire ten books.
Throughout this first trilogy, Covenant attempts, first to escape, then to ignore, and finally to face what he has done. When I say "escape," I do not mean punishment: I mean he seeks to deny that it "really" happened. "What you do in a dream doesn't count." When he finally faces what he has done, he becomes, not a hero, not even a redeemed man, exactly: but someone capable of doing what must be done. And he does it.
In the '80s came the Second Chronicles. In this second trilogy, perhaps Covenant becomes a hero. We see him, in these three books, only through the eyes of a new character, Linden Avery, a doctor with her own emotional troubles. She comes to see him as something admirable, and, willy nilly, so do we, as her point of view is all we have. And in the end he commits an act of extreme self-sacrifice to save the Land.
Then came the long wait. To be fair, during that time, he has completed a great deal of other work: the Mordant's Need diptych (fantasy), the "Gap" series (space opera), two collections of short stories, several mystery novels. But, while all of it is serious work, none of this has the importance or, well, the gravitas of the Covenant books. Finally, word came from the Southwest that Donaldson was "ready" to write the last Covenant chronicles -- a tetralogy. (The Second Chronicles were conceived as a tetralogy also, and shoehorned into trilogy by the demands of Lester del Rey.)
To summarize the Last Chronicles at this stage would be a kind of violence. Take it as follows: Extreme things happen and extreme passions are unleashed. The Earth is threatened in more ways than you can shake a stick at, and the Despiser is behind much, if not all, of it. Thomas Covenant's ex-wife Joan and their son Roger are key players, as is Linden's adopted son Jeremiah. And, in the end, perhaps Covenant finds the true answer to Despite.
What I'm left with is that I deeply respect Donaldson's work, but have to acknowledge that many people whose taste I respect loathe it. Some reasons why that may be of interest:
One: Something that makes Donaldson's work stand out is that for long periods "nothing happens." (In his review of Lord Foul's Bane, Dick Lupoff complained about "endless" walking through forests.) But these are the most important parts of the books: these are where the characters respond to what has happened, and they change as part of their responses. Donaldson's novels are, in this sense, fare more novelistic than most fantasy.
Two: Donaldson's work is often deeply unpleasant. Fantasy is, in both good and bad senses, escape literature; but Donaldson allows no escape. Bad things happen and actions have bad consequences. Even when there is victory, even when there is joy, it comes at horrendous costs, and we are never allowed to forget those costs. His battle scenes are not the glorious contests of Tolkien or the Arthuriad, but gruesome, depressing, and desperate. (Okay: yes, Tolkien did desperate. But it was always a cheerful, British sort of desperation.)
Three, and perhaps most important: Donaldson's style. Donaldson has always been a conscious stylist, but in the original trilogy he was a stylist with a tin ear. One of the things he accomplished during the quarter-century gap between the Second and Last Chronicles was to learn how to write well. His style is still larded with obscure words, but the larding is no longer cloying; and there is now music in his sentences.
This is a review, not a critical assessment of Donaldson. All I can say in the end is that I found this book and this series powerful -- in, to be sure, a very different way than the power of Tolkien, or Powers, or Le Guin: but powerful in its own way. I like it and am grateful to Donaldson for finishing his (flawed) masterwork.
I finished this book emotionally exhausted. It took me longer to read than a 500 page book normally does, because I had to put it down repeatedly to recover from the socks in the gut it dealt me. The combination of real, breathing characters and real, numinous peril is engrossing.
In The Stress of Her Regard, Powers came up with the only really original take on vampires in the last twenty years or more. They are human forms taken by the Nephilim, the stone "giants" who are unlike yet like us. At the end of that book, Dr. John Polidori was one of their possessions.
Where Regard dealt with the Romantic poets, Graves takes us forward in time to the pre-Raphaelites, and particularly the Rosettis, Polidori's nieces and nephews. Fourteen-year-old Christina, not exactly knowing what she is doing, gives blood to the statue that is Polidori's core and restores him to vitality. He and his Nephilim partner "Miss B" (too much of a spoiler to tell you what that stands for) want to create a horrible marriage between ... well, that's too much of a spoiler too. This is really a twisty, turny plot, which can't be summarized without giving away some of the surprises a reader deserves to learn for him/herself.
At any rate, I found myself involved with the characters in a way I rarely do in SFF novels, and their losses and sacrifices affected me deeply, even knowing that it was fiction. But incredibly carefully researched fiction; Tim Powers does immense homework for one of his novels, and finds the gaps where fantasy can creep in.
8:36am: 80 years ago today...
...the originals of the Piranha brothers were born. Twins Ronald and Reginald Kray and their gang, called not "the Gang" but "the Firm," pretty much ran organized crime in the East End of London until they were effectively prosecuted due to the work of Det. Supt. Leonard "Nipper" Read (not Harry "Snapper" Organs of Q Division). Ronald may not have hallucinated a giant hedgehog named Spiny Norman, but he was (probably) a paranoid schizophrenic.
The things I missed in Python as a lad, I tell you...
6:29pm: Read: The Hemingway Hoax, by Joe Haldeman (2013-82)
Descended in part from Anderson's "Time Patrol" stories, in other part from Heinlein's "All You Zombies," in yet other part from Leinster's "Sideways In Time," and (of course) quite heavily from Hemingway himself, The Hemingway Hoax is quite the story.
John Baird, a Hemingway scholar, finds himself involved in a plot to forge Hemingway's lost early stories. A nameless guardian of the omniverse comes to convince him that this is a bad idea, that important things in the future ride on his not doing this. (The explanation of why it's so important, when it finally comes, is the least convincing part of the book. Fortunately, it isn't really important to the story.)
Parts of the book are cod-Hemingway, but good cod-Hemingway, if you can imagine such a thing. Other parts aren't. The whole is excellent.
4:06pm: Read: Bach, Beethoven and the Boys by David W. Barber (2013-81)
I suspect that, had I come across this book in my teens or early twenties (which would have been impossible, as it wasn't published until I was in my late twenties), I would have found it hilarious and gone around quoting it to anyone who'd stand still for it. It's a lot like Richard Armour (of, among other things, English Lit Relit fame), complete with feetnote. As a >mumblety<-five year old, I found it mildly amusing.
Fortunately, I also found it quite informative, in a gossipy, trivial sort of way. It's no substitute for a formal history of classical music, but it is an excellent supplement to one.
Alas: the illustrations by Dave Donald add very little.
The DK Eyewitness Travel Guides are unquestionably my favorite books for exploring a place prior to going. They are lavishly illustrated and full of practical information. This is true of the China book, as usual. The edition I borrowed is 8 years old, so some of the information may be a bit out of date, but most of it is probably pretty good.
Basically this looks like an amazing, but somewhat scary, place to visit. Exploration continues...
I'm not being snarky or nasty, I really mean it. The Republican Party has a grand tradition that goes back to Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Taft and Everett Dirksen. I honor and respect that tradition.
The truth is, though, that the Republican Party has been sick for years -- at least since the Nixon Administration. It probably became terminal sometime in the mid to late '80s, though it wasn't clear until the '90s that the Party was cancerous, devouring sustenance to all else in favor of its own growth.
Now it's devouring itself.
I'm really sorry it had to come to this. I may not like the two-party system very much, but a society in which there is only one powerful party would be far worse.
Perhaps you could visit Lourdes and pray for a miraculous cure; for that to happen would be the best possible outcome for everyone. But let's be clear, a cure won't be there unless you can clear out all the cancerous cells. Otherwise it would just grow right back.
Some of you probably refuse to believe that your Party is committing suicide. That's understandable. Denial is one of the important stages you have to go through in the grieving process. But you should get through it as quickly as possible.
Others are in the bargaining phase, thinking that if only Obama would make a deal this wouldn't have to happen. But the truth is that it's way too late for any deal of that sort to do the Republican Party any good.
Let's celebrate the good times.
Well, all right, the really good times were a long, long time ago, but you had some good times under Reagan. Really, you did. The Party, though terribly ill at that point, with early symptoms of plutocracy, torture, and war-of-choice, had a brief "sunshine" phase in those days.
But Iran-Contra was a warning sign that shouldn't have been ignored. Radical surgery at that point might have saved the Party. But now, alas, it's too late.
May God be with you as you go through your grief. I'll be there if you need me.
Bobby Dollar is an angel. No, really, he's the angel Doloriel, living on Earth as a human because that's his job -- he's an Advocate, meaning that when someone dies, he speaks for them before the Judge who decides their eternal fate. Hell sends a Prosecutor, Heaven sends an Advocate and a Judge, which doesn't seem quite fair, but there you are.
Our story begins when Bobby goes to a death scene, and the soul just isn't there. Both Heaven and Hell are thrown into a tizzy by this. And, to make matters worse, the Prosecutor sent to the scene gets murdered in a particularly gruesome way. Of course, it's someone with whom Bobby has a history. And there's a MacGuffin, something that everybody believes Bobby has but he doesn't even know what it is. Plus he's being hunted by a demonic hellbeast from the dawn of time.
It's dark and it's funny, and it keeps the twists coming. In short it's a fine noir fantasy that I recommend wholeheartedly.
It is, in places, a bit dry. The last two essays in particular I found a bit dull (one on Morpheus's robes and one on lesbian language in Death: The High Cost of Living). It is also, in places, quite lively. There were essays I disagreed with, and ones that made me think new thoughts.
Oh, and there's one by kalimac, on the substory "A Game of You."
If you're a Sandman fan, this should be on your list. If not, it would probably bore you to tears.
The Spook takes our hero, Tom Ward, and his friend the possibly-benign young witch Alice, to Pendle, the worst witch-infested district in the County. There they learn that the three covens of Pendle -- normally at each other's throats -- are uniting to perform a terrible ritual and raise the Devil himself. The plot thickens from there...
Much is good about this series. It's cleanly written and entertaining, and I have yet to catch the author in a serious stupidity. (There is a residual implicit sexism in that witches are only female, though they have men attached to them.) I would have no hesitation giving it to a preteen or teenager who wants the next thing after Harry Potter.
8:43pm: Read: The Concrete Grove, by Gary McMahon (2013-74)
This is one of those books that the marketing people call horror because there isn't a marketing category for "weird." And weird it is, so much so that, after finishing it, I'm still not sure what was going on at the end -- nor do I suspect that Mr. McMahon intended us to be sure.
It's horror in the blunt sense that Bad Things happen, but it's not about things that suck your blood or jump out and go Boo! It's about the liminal stuff, things happening at the edge of reality.
All right, yes. There is one thing that jumps out and goes Boo! once in the book. Well, it doesn't actually say Boo! but it's that kind of thing. But it's almost sidewise to the main plot ... whatever that is.
I've not told you much about the book, have I? It's very hard to talk about, especially without committing monster spoilage. It's about five people, basically: a woman who's been forced down to the dregs of society; and her daughter, who is the first to see the weirdness; and a man whose paralyzed wife has dragged his life down to shit, who falls in love with the woman; and a sadistic loan shark to whom the woman is in debt she can't pay; and a thug who works for said loan shark.
Three of these people die before the book is done. Not all of them deserve it.
Anyway, it's really, really weird (on the Shirley scale).
On what should be a routine mission, things go to Hell. The rather pathetic mad scientist Doctor Delerium gets hold of an item of immense power, the Apocalypse Door, which can let everything in Hell out. And Eddie learns of the existence of a group of "anti-Droods."
These, it turns out, are the Immortals, whose power came originally from the same source as that of the Droods. They are powers behind the throne, manipulators, and they wanted that door; it was because of Drood interference that Doctor D got away with it. So they quickly coopt Doctor D and their plan to open the door moves apace.
It's a race against time, and (to make matters worse) things move from one bloodbath to another. Not a book for the weak of stomach, all right.
And just when you think things are going to turn out well, twist ending and major cliffhanger. Oh well, I've got the next one on the shelf -- though I think I'll read a few other things first.
7:22am: How far we've come, or maybe we haven't.
40 years ago today Billie Jean King decisively beat Bobby Riggs in the tennis match known as the "Battle of the Sexes." If you need context, look it up yourself.
5:31pm: Read: A Certain "Je Ne Sais Quo" by Chloe Rhodes (2013-72)
A British book originally, brought to America by Readers Digest books, this is a chatty little collection of "The origin of foreign words used in English." Well, an awful lot of words common in English usage have foreign origins, but that never stopped anyone.
So what it is, is a collection of words and phrases like "carpe diem," "ketchup," and "schmuck," with a bit of etymology, a bit of modern usage, and a more-or-less whimsical example (often with an illustration that I'm pretty sure is intended to be whimsical but isn't). A moderate number of these were not known to me (for example, I didn't know that the literal sense of "ketchup" is "fish brine"), and two or three words were entirely new to me. So the time was not lost.
An excellent gift for the etymology buff in your house.
5:23pm: Read: HWJN (2013-71)
There's a lot I don't know about this book. For example, I'm not entirely clear on who wrote it. It lists "Author: Ibraheem Abbas; Co-Author: Yasser Bahjatt." Why is Abbas an author and Bahjatt only a co-author? I don't know.
Nor do I know who gave it to me. I was on my way to the Masquerade at WorldCon this year, and a man in very nice Arabic gear handed me a copy from a pile he had with him. I don't know if he was the author, the co-author, the publisher, or what.
And I don't know if it was written in English, or written in Arabic and translated. Abbas and Bahjatt are (it says here) "the cofounders of Yatakhayaloon -- the League of Arabic SciFiers," and that is who published the book.I can't find out any more, because their website is in Arabic.
But I do know that it isn't "SciFi," or even science fiction, but contemporary fantasy.
And I know that the English text could have been better edited. There are typoes and missing words galore, and the style often resembles the speech of an Arabic-speaker who is almost fluent in English. (Trust me, I've known a few.)
Okay, so what's it about? It's the story of a Djinni named Hawjan -- thus the title, HWJN, which is his name without the vowels as it would be in Arabic writing. Hawjan lives with his mother and grandfather, in a suburb of Jeddah which has not yet been fully occupied.
Then one day the house they're living in is occupied by the family of a Dr. Abdulraheem, and most importantly, his daughter Sawsan. Hawjan is fascinated by Sawsan and begins communicating with her, first through a Ouija board then through higher-tech methods. They form a beautiful friendship.
There are, however, problems. Sawsan has brain cancer, and Hawjan has ... family. Hawjan is a Muslim, descended in his mother's line from those who heard Mohammed's voice and believed. But his father was a powerful Marid, the evil Djinn, who reformed to marry Hawjan's mother. The Marid have never forgiven this betrayal and want Hawjan -- or, at least, his offspring.
So that's the setup. The plot follows logically enough, given the starting conditions, with plenty of twists and turns packed into its 180 pages. It's entertaining enough, and gives some insight into Arabic culture and what it isn't -- that is, it isn't the cliches we get in our media -- and what is believed about Djinn. All in all, well worth the time I spent reading it.
It begins when a preppie girl named Muffy Birnbaum (from the Greenberg School, no less) winds up on Edgar Rice Burroughs's Mars, or Barsoom. Over the course of nine stories, Muffy -- pardon me, Maureen -- visits a variety of worlds: ERB's Pellucidar, the future of Robert Adams's Horseclans stories, Asimov's Lagash (from "Nightfall"), Sherwood Forest, somewhere on the outskirts of Arthurian Britain, Lovecraft's version of Yale, and a near future Moon.
Did I mention it was silly? Because it is.
Oddly for something as silly as this, Maureen also develops as a woman and a heroine, from the airheaded preppie of the first story to a self-empowered feminist with a knack for helping those in need.
7:41am: Happy Constitution Day to my US friends!
Surely it is a coincidence that on this day in 1859, failed merchant Joshua A. Norton declared himself Emperor of the United States and thus joined the ranks of the immortal.