Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Is Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant worth the paper it's printed on?

It's no big secret that I am not a fan of Stephen Donaldson. I do not really consider him a major author and if could go back in time and stop myself from reading the Chronicles of Thomas covenant I probably would. What I am wondering is if this series has any redeeming qualities whatsoever or if the world would just be a better place without it.

One thing that I can see the author was trying to achieve was to defy the conventions of fantasy by making the main character a kind of anti-hero. So we get Thomas Covenant, a cynical leper who is constantly complaining and doubting the fantasy world that he finds himself in. This is a somewhat interesting concept and in the very beginning of the first book of the series I was actually intrigued but as the story wore on the combination of Covenant's character and Donaldson's narrative style killed my interest.

Why Donaldson chose to narrate an epic fantasy with an annoying anti-hero protagonist in a close third person perspective? I can't say for sure. Why no one read an initial draft of his manuscript and told him he might want to rethink the perspective? Perhaps an even bigger mystery. I think that in using a limited third person perspecive, Donaldson was trying to highlight Covenant's internal conflict in his constant doubt in the Land's existance. In my opinion the ends did not justify the means with this choice and for a number of reasons.

First and foremost that conflict was not all that compelling to me in the first place. I think that it is warrented for Covenant to doubt the Land at first based on his history with the leprosarium and the way that he has had to train himself to become incredibly grounded in reality. After a while though Covenant's constant doubt in the Land just got annoying to me. Even if he believed it was a dream why not just run with it? Moreover it seemed that with the close third person perspective, Donaldson was attempting to extend this disbelief to the reader as well as the character which for me just did not work. The willing suspension of disbelief by the reader is not just a conventino of fantasy but a convention of all fiction. I think that for the most part to subvert this convention is to write bad fiction. The "it was all just a dream after all" ending is a cliché so I don't see why leading the reader to believe that might be coming is a good thing. I would have rather seen Donaldson construct a compelling world that I could become invested in rather than have him constantly try to make me doubt the world that he did present.

Another complication that arose from the close third person narratative style is the way that exposition is handled. The world building element of fantasy fiction requires a great deal of exposition and the use of limited third person perspective only allows the author to deliver that information through things that the main character observes. One way that Donaldson deals with this problem is to jam as much exposition into dialogue as possible. The result is that characters use unnatural voices to essentially talk at the reader and provide them a comprehensive history of the Land. What Donaldson can't force into exposition he deals with through Thomas Covenant's uncanny perceptions of the world around him. To some extent this may be warrented as Covenant is a former writer but I think that the inferences that the narrator makes through Covenant become excessive to the point where it takes the reader out of the story.

So is the seires worth the paper it's printed on? Maybe I'll give it that but it's definately not worth the ink. That stuff is expensive.

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