The Illearth War, by Stephen R. Donaldson

I had a lot of help getting through the first book in Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series. Unfortunately there wasn’t a second season of Fantasy Bedtime Hour, so I was all on my own tackling this one. Like in the first one, there is a lot of singing and difficult-to-pronounce italicized words and other material which broadly comes under the category of “worldbuilding wank”. But ultimately the series wants to be about a visitor from the real world to a fantasy land in peril where they are the Chosen One to rescue it. This series actually predates The Fionavar Tapestry, which I kind of think of as the primary example of that particular trope (other than Narnia, which as children’s lit and Christian lit has certain other expectations), and the Thomas Covenant novels confront the fundamental escapism of the conceit far more than Fionavar ever did.

The central schtick of the first novel was that in spite of story-structuring as high fantasy, the big Hero From Another World is actually a pretty horrible human being but that as their last best hope they find themselves obligated to at least try to work with him, in spite of his adamant resistance to behaving even remotely heroically. Parts of this idea end up rather muddled in the second book. The land comes across less as a place where they work with Covenant because they need him, but more because they feel automatically compelled to be decent to him in spite of his own shocking indecency, and would presumably do the same to anyone else. In light of his actual actions in the first book (which we are reminded of incessantly; see below), everyone’s admiration of him comes across as a naïve inability to be rude. Let’s not even get into the Elena’s passion for Thomas: temporal craziness makes it not squicky on the basis of age, but it is on pretty much every single other aspect, and it’s hard to figure out what it is that she sees in him (of course, her behavior is generally so bizarre from mid-book on that I’d buy into a third-book indication that she suffered brain damage or some-such).

I’m not sure what to think about the introduction of another real-world character. On the one hand, Hile Troy helps to set ol’ TC in relief, since he confirms that, no, it’s not just the confusion of being in the Land that paralyzes him, but that Covenant is actually authentically a more repulsive character than others who do embrace their destinies (also, unlike all the other characters, he twigs to the fact that Thomas is not actually a very nice person). But on the other hand, he kinds of undermines the fantasy-subversion, since he actually is the Hero from Another World who saves their ass.

Now, on to the elephant in the room, which is rape. In the original book, I was kind of caught short by the fact that for about two thirds of the book, everybody avoided even talking about the unpleasant fact that the first thing Covenant did in the Land was rape somebody. For the first half of book 2, everybody talks about it a lot. This was discomfort-inducing, but not for the reasons it should have been discomfort-inducing. Atrocity writing is a bit sensitive, and for reasons I find difficult to elucidate it felt like Illearth ended up on the wrong side of the line. It’s difficult to say much of anything about narrative overuse of an atrocity: call someone on it, and you feel like an asshole for trivializing an important thing; don’t call them on it, and you feel like a tool for granting criticism-invulnerability on the grounds of subject sensitivity. So I’d like to qualify my uncertainty about the way the rape themes were handled here with the caveats that (a) I realize narrative rape and real-world rape are different subjects, and hope I can be critical of the handling of the former without reflecting on the importance of the latter, and (b) Donaldson had valid bona fide narrative reasons why extensive reference to the rape became necessary, and wasn’t doing it just for the Dark Themes.

See also: Wikipedia.

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About Jake
I'm a mathematics professor at the University of Louisville, and a geek.

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