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The Runes of the Earth by Stephen R. Donaldson
Review by Drew Bittner
Putnam Publishing Group Hardcover  ISBN/ITEM#: 0399152326
Date: 14 October, 2004 List Price $26.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

WARNING: Here There Be Spoilers - but not big ones

Lord Foul, the satanic enemy of the Land, seeks to break the Arch of Time and escape a captivity imposed on him by the Land?s godlike Creator. He tried to manipulate Thomas Covenant into using the wild magic of his white gold ring twice before, failing on both occasions. But his malice has never been eradicated and his plots are long in the making.

It is ten years after the events of the Second Chronicles. Covenant is long gone, having died to defeat Lord Foul a second time. Linden Avery, the doctor who undid the monstrous Sunbane, has settled down to run a psychiatric care facility and adopt a child maimed in The Wounded Land. Her son, Jeremiah, seems autistic but is not; he has merely withdrawn impossibly far into himself, interacting only with toys he can arrange in patterns. Linden has not forgotten Covenant but believes the Land?s lessons are in the past.

Unfortunately, the past has a nasty way of coming back.

Roger Covenant, now grown to adulthood, seeks to claim his father?s legacy, as well as custody of his demented, self-mutilating mother Joan. Linden realizes he is dangerous, even unbalanced, but cannot comprehend his full depravity until her own child is put at risk. Following Roger to a showdown at Covenant?s Haven Farm, she finds herself pulled once again into the Land, where it is 3500 years later and things are nothing like she remembers them.

From the pinnacle of Kevin?s Watch, she sees the Land is shrouded in smog with dire properties. She is then found by Anele, a frail, demented old man bursting with Earthpower (the magic of the Land). He is being hunted, he insists, and begs for her help. They survive a cataclysmic attack by a ravening evil, only to find that no one has the power to help her, mostly because of the self-proclaimed Masters of the Land.

Linden is astounded and dismayed to find that these Masters, whom Anele fears so greatly, are the Haruchai?a race of humans she befriended on her first visit. Back in Covenant?s time, they used their peerless martial arts skills as the Lords? elite Bloodguard, but since Linden?s last visit?due to some things that happened then?the Haruchai have decided that any use of Earthpower serves Lord Foul. From this decision, they have taken matters into their own hands. Although they offer her a cautious, probationary welcome, their inflexibility and arrogance horrify Linden as much as anything else she discovers in this greatly changed place.

Her anguish and desperation increase when she realizes that the Masters see her as a potential threat and may not help her find her missing child. She uses the distraction of a magical storm to flee the village of Mithil Stonedown with Liand, a villager seeking knowledge denied by the Masters. They strike out for the South Plains, blasted lands below the Southron Mountains, where the Masters do not patrol. They are overtaken by Stave, a Master, who warns them of deadly peril, only to be saved by a combined effort of the horse-tending Ramen and the long-missing ur-viles.

The Ramen and the Ranyhyn (a race of magical horses) they serve fled the Land thousands of years past. They hate the Haruchai, whom they accuse of riding Ranyhyn to death in ages past, but agree to set aside their old grudges to deal with the looming threat posed by Lord Foul.

In the course of events, Anele?s story is revealed. He has devoted himself to the lore of stone; his rambling utterances often convey pieces of the Land?s history, written in the bones of the earth itself. He is a stark, tragic figure, confounded by his own fears and failures, which become meaningful to their shared quest.

Linden realizes that she needs the Staff of Law to counter Foul?s menace and recover her son, but the Staff was lost nearly three thousand years earlier. The white gold ring she carries, once held by Thomas Covenant, may give her a way to retrieve it?but at what price? And what destruction might she unleash on the Land in her struggle to save her son, who is the captive of Lord Foul?

Fans of the previous six volumes may wonder if the new work measures up to those beloved classics.

Fear not. The old magic is back.

Donaldson is at the top of his form as a master wordsmith, whose complex individuals face impossible, contradictory demands. The depth of characterization is a Donaldson hallmark and he creates unforgettable figures in Linden, Anele, Liand, Stave, Manethralls Hami and Mahrtiir, and even silent, unreadable Jeremiah. Lord Foul is as contemptuous and peculiarly gamesmanlike as before, helping his enemies only to serve his inscrutable ends.

There are a great many surprises to be had in Runes. Readers will learn a great deal about the history of the Land in unexpected ways, as Ranyhyn, Ramen and Haruchai give up secrets and reveal mysteries to delight long-time readers. Certain origins and life-shaping events are described for the first time.

And Thomas Covenant is not forgotten, though his role may surprise readers quite a bit.

It is a remarkable pleasure to read of the Ramen and Ranyhyn once again, particularly as they affected the Land in ways no reader might have expected. Also, the Haruchai have evolved in ways entirely consistent with their earlier appearances; their unyielding sense of righteousness steers them toward a singular kind of folly shared by misguided idealists.

It should be said that Runes is not an easy or light-hearted read. Donaldson?s vocabulary is formidable and not every word can be parsed by context, while the weight of Linden?s desperation and despair make emotional demands on the reader. It is never easy to read about suffering or anxiety of this sort, but Donaldson makes Linden?s needs compelling, even uplifting, as she contemplates what she is willing to do to save her beloved Jeremiah.

I cannot imagine any fantasy enthusiast not being in line bright and early when this novel goes on sale. My personal despair is that it will be awhile before the next book, Fatal Revenant, is released; Donaldson?s website (www.stephenrdonaldson.com) says that he might start writing it soon, but that the four books (of which Runes is the first) are projected to come out over a span of nine years.

Surely, somewhere, Lord Foul is laughing at my frustrated anticipation.

Highly recommended.

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