Stephen R. Donaldson is one of the more
SF and Fantasy authors. His books are full of unsympathetic characters
who generally experience great suffering. Some readers find the violence, suffering and
degradation intolerable. Others are put off by his willful toying with
genre conventions and his portentous writing.
With other fans, Donaldson is an overwhelming favourite. In genres that
are frequently accused of escapism, his books are dark and morally complex.
Even when grotesquely unlikable, his characters are starkly memorable.
Donaldson is also highly skilled at pacing and creating tension: his books can be
hard to put down.
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant
The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant consist of two separate
trilogies. The original consists of
Lord Foul's Bane,
The Illearth War and
The Power That Preserves.
The second, imaginatively titled "The Second Chronicles
of Thomas Covenant", consists of
The Wounded Land,
The One Tree and
White Gold Wielder.
The Chronicles are heavily and obviously inspired by Tolkien. Many
of the familiar elements of Fantasy are there: an idyllic, rural
other world called "The Land"; magic; other races, some benevolent,
some malicious. The originality of the Chronicles lies with
the way these elements are used; often directly opposite to the
The protagonist, Thomas Covenant, is mysteriously transported to
The Land; apparently in order to save it: an over-familiar idea even
in 1972, dating back to long before Edgar Rice Burrough's Mars books.
Covenant is no hero, however; and is about as far from John Carter
as could be imagined.
In general, when transported to an alien land, the existential
uncertainty suffered by the hero is mercifully brief. He may
wonder whether he is dreaming in between attacks, but whether
dreaming or not, quickly decides to act in an appropriately
heroic manner. Thomas Covenant is different.
Covenant is a leper. Deserted by his wife, who took their
baby and fled when he was diagnosed with the disease,
Covenant's survival depends on constant paranoia.
Without feeling in his limbs, he must constantly survey
them for injury. In his life he must avoid all unnecessary
risks. Lepers who grow careless die quickly, so his doctors
have impressed on him the idea that he must accept the grim
reality of his situation. So, when miraculously healed after
entering the Land, Covenant refuses to accept its reality.
Furthermore, he refuses to even act as if it is real, to
even consider saving it.
This is the essential dilemma that drives the plot of the
first trilogy. As with the quest to dispose of the Ring
in LotR, various other characters and subplots dominate
the events of the book, while Covenant's internal quest
It is this fact that accounts in large part
for the appeal of the
Thomas Covenant books to adolescents. Every teenager
instinctively sympathises with a refusal to carry
out a concrete task for nebulous moral reasons. Covenant's
refusal to save the land is directly analogous to a
teenager's refusal to tidy his or her bedroom. As a leper,
Covenant is an outsider, rejected by and rejecting
the world, another factor that allows adolescents to
identify with him in spite of his unsympathetic nature.
However, there is more to this series than that.
The books deal unashamedly with issues of evil and moral
choices. One of the principal themes
of "The Lord of the Rings" as that of the corrupting nature
of power: Tolkien's One Ring cannot be used without corrupting
its bearer. Tolkien's theme is the essentially Christian one,
that paradoxically it is only innocence that can overcome
evil. Ultimately Tolkien sidesteps the issue: evil
eventually destroys itself. The Covenant books have a similar
Ring, and a similar dilemma over whether to exercise its
power, but this time we see in much more pitiless detail the
consequences of his refusal to use it. In Donaldson's books
some characters choose to use power, some to reject it,
but there are always consequences and a price to pay.
The greatest weakness of the series is probably its writing
style, abandoned by Donaldson in later books. Donaldson makes
a point of using obscure and archaic
all the way through
the text: nothing is cold if it can be gelid, no-one can be foolish
if he can be anile, and practically everything is eldritch or fey.
Most readers become used to it, but some give up in
disgust, or a strained dictionary arm.
The first book is also
for its early rape scene,
which has caused many readers to
This is a shame, since the books are
worth persisting with: more powerful, if less readable, than
his later books. The sexual violence is not repeated, and this
scene is utterly necessary to the series, both thematically and
structurally: the disastrous consequences are worked out in painful
detail over the first trilogy. It is unfortunate that
he had to write this scene before he had time to fully develop his
For the Mordant's Need books, Donaldson narrowed his vocabulary, to
the relief of most readers. Once again, this is a fantasy about
a dysfunctional character plunged into a strange world, but this
is a much lighter read than the Thomas Covenant books. It consists
of two long books:
The Mirror of her Dreams and
A Man Rides Through.
Funny in places, touching in others, this is probably a better
introduction to Donaldson than any other.
The plot is notable
in that it avoids the familiar quest structure: most of the action
takes place in a single castle. It's a tribute to Donaldson's plotting
ability that he carries this off. The central character here, Terisa Morgan,
is more subtly flawed than Covenant, oppressively meek and passive,
rather than aggressive, but she is developed convincingly as the plot
The Gap Series
With the Gap series, Donaldson turned to old-fashioned space opera,
complete with asteroid miners and space pirates. Fantasy is not
too far away, as the plot is based on Wagner's Ring Cycle, with
familiar characters turning up in new guises. His universe is
impeccably worked out: while the economy appears unconvincing at
first, the gaps turn out to be the key to developments in the later books.
This is probably the most gripping work Donaldson has ever written:
Donaldson's plotting, pacing and writing had improved immensely by
this point: I found it hard not to read each book in a single
The series begins with
The Real Story,
a remarkably slim book at only 200 pages. Once again,
some of the scenes may be rather too brutal for the most sensitive
readers. The Gap series is structured as a melodrama,
with the three principal characters changing roles as the book progresses.
The four later books
A Dark and Hungry God Arises,
Chaos and Order and
This Day All Gods Die
are a more typical length, expanding the tight focus of the first book
into a consciously epic story.
The Man Who...
Stephen Donaldson claims to be a slow reader: judging by his output
he may write faster than he reads. Starting in 1984, he also
wrote a series of mystery novels. At his publishers
he used the thinly-disguised pseudonym "Reed Stephens"
(Reeder is his middle name), but the books have now been reissued under
his real name.
As you would expect by now, suffering and guilt are major aspects
of these books. The protagonist Axbrewder gets drunk,
is beaten up and
is shot at with
the frequency of a Raymond Chandler character; but here we get to
see the consequences in gritty detail. Burly detective Axbrewder has plenty of
guilt to go around as the title of the first book,
The Man Who Killed His Brother,
demonstrates. Follow ups were
The Man Who Risked His Partner,
The Man Who Tried to Get Away and
The Man Who Fought Alone.
While interesting, these books are less successful by mystery standards,
the plots being somewhat implausible. It doesn't help that Axbrewder
is not intended to be a particularly intelligent character: in the
partnership he acts mainly as the muscle, leaving the deduction to
his sharp-tongued, claw-handed female partner Ginny.
What the books do show is Donaldson's particular strength in all his books,
grabbing the familiar tropes of a genre and taking them seriously.
In Donaldson's books, everything has consequences. A Chandler detective
who gets shot in the shoulder is back to normal almost immediately:
Axbrewder spends a whole book in recovery, staggering painfully
between sickbeds in a haze of painkillers. When Axbrewder and Ginny cross
the local gang boss, they have to leave town for good.
This is the recurring theme of Donaldson's books: confronted by
a genre situation, the characters react in diverse but human ways,
motivated by fear, greed and apathy rather than just an abstract desire
to save the day.
Stephen Donaldson generally writes at an epic length.
He has never written a stand-alone novel at all. However, he
has published two short story collections:
Daughter of Regals and Other Tales and
Reave the Just.
There are some interesting snapshots among them, but without
the space to develop characters and worlds his appeal is more
is a one-off: a story involving part of the Thomas Covenant chronicles,
a detailed account of a journey that was alluded to in the chronicles
His most recent book, "The Man Who Fought Alone" was published in 2002,
and he is tight-lipped about future projects. However, he has hinted
that a Third Chronicles of Thomas Covenant may be written
at some time in the future. Whatever he chooses to write, it is
sure to be as powerful as ever.
version of this article appeared
Stephen R. Donaldson has no connection with another
Donaldson who was a noted campaigner
against prison rape. Even
Anthony has accepted this now.