Monday, June 9, 2014

Review of The Power that Preserves by Stephen Donaldson

If there is any common ground to reviews and discussion on Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series (and Gap Cycle, for that matter), it is their divisiveness.  Opinion is split along many lines.  Some readers are turned off by Covenant’s personality, while others are intrigued by his atypical qualities as an epic fantasy (anti-)hero.  There are bold statements to the effect Covenant is just a Tolkien rip off, while other commentary believes the series is a fresh view on epic fantasy.  And still others are turned on or off by Donaldson’s worldbuilding.  The consistency with which The Power that Preserves, the third book in the Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series, is delivered will probably not have these people changing their minds.

Covenant thrown back in the real world at the end of The Illearth War, the opening of The Power that Preserves finds him still in our reality. Also still battling his leprosy, his memories of the Land confuse his perspective of home.  Repercussions of his trip to the bar in The Illearth War arising, a claim is placed on his property by local authorities, causing him to leave his home once again, trailing anger and disillusion at the people who contact him.  But walking through the woods one day and seeing a girl about to be bitten by a snake, Covenant is distracted and goes to the rescue.  Before he can save the girl, however, he finds himself back with the Council, summoned to eliminate the icy hold Foul has placed on the Land with his great armies.  At a crossroads, Covenant must decide whether to return to the real world to help the girl about to be bitten, or stay, and with the power of his ring, drive back the assault of Lord Foul.

For those who have hung on every word of the first two books of the series, The Power that Preserves will probably be the most satisfying yet. Though the plot moves by contrived turns, Donaldson drives Covenant’s dilemma to a point it must break.  And indeed, it does.  His character developing in the process, readers have been waiting for this moment.  It goes without saying that those who have enjoyed the series do not expect a good vs. evil showdown with Foul (Covenant is himself no lamb, and Donaldson does not disappoint.

Through this development, The Power that Preserves confirms Covenant’s experiences in the land are symbolic representation of the fears and struggles of the man’s life in the real world; more complex matters are represented in simpler images or elements—something, Donaldson seems to attest, that is necessary if a life changing disease such as leprosy is to be confronted with relevance.  And nothing could be less-sophisticated than the Land.  Satansfist an overt name for a bad guy (as opposed to Dave or Bob or Joseph [Stalin]), what Covenant encounters in the fantasy realm is an abstract parallel to the reality of his situation in the real world.  Donaldson outlaying all of the man’s doubts and fears, the worries and problems in both realms, it remains, however, for our world to resolve them.  Accordingly, the novel sees Covenant visiting “reality” more than once in his quest, with the denouement entirely dependent on said relationship between the two places.

Lord Foul’s Bane, on top of being one of the greatest book titles in epic fantasy history, was more than pretentious about its position within the field.  Though the personal struggles of a diseased man was its focus, a traditional good vs. evil storyline overrides his problems, leading the reader to believe the novel, and by inference series, will be likewise predictable.  Lord Foul’s Bane, and to some extent The Illearth War, indeed not exceedingly experimental within the sub-genre, The Power that Preserves is the most atypical of the books, yet.  This is not to say Donaldson has gone grimdark, rather that he produces a story that engages the reader for its lack of obviousness more than the previous books.  The ending, in particular, is the strongest point of the series, and may indeed salvage it from the depths of stereotype. 

In the end, The Power that Preserves, while not resolving all of Covenant’s issues, is an adequate conclusion to the first Unbeliever trilogy that resolves the major ones.  Covenant comes to a higher plateau of understanding, while events in the Land, as larger-than-life as they are, also see the curtain finally come down.  The best book in the series for its highlighting of atypical epic fantasy elements, the story nevertheless remains wholly in line with the first two books from the larger genre view.  Assuming the reader has come this far without flinching at the divisive nature of the series, Covenant’s redemption, or at least partially so, will reward.

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