Why this doesn’t suck: Stephen R. Donaldson’s Against All Things Ending

So I decided I wanted to do a regular review on my oh-so-new blog, but perhaps not in the usual sense of book reviews.  Truth is, I just like talking about the stuff I like, and there’s a lot of stuff I like.  If I don’t like a book, I usually don’t finish it.  If I like it, I want to tell other people about it.

Don’t get me wrong:  I love reading negative reviews, particularly if they’re well written.  Nothing’s better for a good laugh than a thorough excoriation of the newest Dan Brown.

But for my own blog?  Nothin’ but positive.  And I couldn’t be more positive about the writing of Stephen R. Donaldson.  I’ve been reading this guy since I was fifteen — an age he thinks is way too young to be tackling his stuff.  Many people describe Donaldson’s prose as an acquired taste, but for me, when I read even the first few chapters of Lord Foul’s Bane in my middle teens, I was hooked for life.

It’s hard to say why I loved the man’s writing so much at such an early age.  His style is weighty, almost biblical at times, an old-testament prophet lowering at you from under heavy brows.  But, oh, those words.  Donaldson’s vocabulary is rich, gorgeous, deep and resonant.  He knows the old, thick words, the ones made of bedrock, the ones people carve commandments into.  And those are just the real ones.  This being fantasy, there are a lot of made up names that have so much stony reality that you almost can’t believe they haven’t been around for a thousand years.

So, it’s style, I guess, that first brought me to The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.  But it was probably character that kept me there.  Donaldson’s eponymous protagonist is one of the most tortured I’ve encountered, but there’s something amazingly present about him.  He isn’t just puppet on a stage, there to emote pain and self-hatred.  He loves, doubts, hates, longs and feels the most gorgeous mix of such palpable emotions that you can feel him burning through the pages onto your hand.

Okay, I’m rambling.  The story so far:  I started reading Stephen R. Donaldson when I was young.  I’m now not so young, and I’m still a raving fan.

And now I’ve read his most recent Thomas Covenant novel, Against All Things Ending. On to…

Why this doesn’t suck:

To be honest, some would say it does.  To the wrong reader, Donaldson’s prose, especially because of his daunting vocabulary, is impenetrable.  And slow.  The first scene, taking place after a shocking and apocalyptic turn of events at the conclusion of the previous novel Fatal Revenant, lasts, oh, what? — eighty pages or something like that?  Seriously.  Eighty pages of tortured conversation in a single location, endless arguments about what to do, who to trust, how to proceed.

But it doesn’t suck.  It glows.  Somehow all the waiting — and there’s more of it throughout the rest of the novel — makes the decisions and events of the novel all the more meaningful and — I keep using this word — weighty.  This third book in the current sequence of four — or ninth in the overall series of ten, however you want to put it — uses all of the weight of what must be over three thousand pages that came before it as a kind of battering ram against the reader’s consciousness.

It’s amazing.  Every sentence, whether dialogue or narrative or bare description, blazes off the page.

I haven’t said a thing about the events of this novel, and I really don’t intend to.  What’s the point when I’m talking about the second-last book of a series?  I’m not really reviewing anyway; I’m just gushing about probably my favourite writer of all time, his perfect doom-laden prose, his thundering tortured characters and his heartbreaking plots.  If that sounds good to you, go buy his books.  If it doesn’t, then they’re probably not for you.

It’s also worth noting that Donaldson has his own website at which he hosts what he calls the “gradual interview.”  He’ll answer just about any question put to him by his readers.  He’s been doing it for almost seven years now, and has amassed a total of more that 2 500 answers.  It’s a sort of slow-motion masterclass in both writing and reading conducted by and occasionally grouchy but good-humoured and wise sage.  He doesn’t ever seem to refuse a question, and his answers are very often fascinating.

I can’t recommend this writer strongly enough.

That’s why he doesn’t suck.

Cover of Against All Things Ending

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About davidlomax

Writer, teacher, husband, dad. Geek from way back. Author of the totally pre-orderable Backward Glass, out in October 2013 from Flux Books (http://goo.gl/4FOM2). View all posts by davidlomax

2 responses to “Why this doesn’t suck: Stephen R. Donaldson’s Against All Things Ending

  • scot

    Actually, Against All Things Ending DOES indeed suck if you compare it to his other Thomas Covenant books. In this book, four out of five words have to do with how Linden Avery is drowning in self pity, indecision, and the maddening ability to do nothing when action is called for.

    This tendency of creating irritating characters is in all of Stepehen R Donaldson’s books, but it wasn’t until this book that his tendency to do this transformed from a mere annoyance to a mocking commentary by Donaldson about how people will buy a book with his name on it no matter how much it sucks.

    At the very least he could have put a note before certain sections that goes like this:

    [Note to readers: feel free to skip the next 30 pages unless you enjoy reading two dozen different descriptions the boil down to, “Linden is sad and confused.”

    A Cliff Notes version of the book would be nice. It would be about fifty pages long. The [sad and confused] insert would take up nearly 4/5 of the book.

    Donaldson has lost it. He’s great at writing about ineptitude and self loathing, he always has been, but he’s taken it to a level that’s ridiculous. Lord Foul’s Bane was ineptitude and self loathing bracketed by blazing fantasy action.

    Do NOT, under any circumstance, buy the audio version of this book. At least with the written version you can skip over the multitudes of useless sections in the book that do nothing more to further the storyline except show off Donaldson’s vocabulary and creative ways of saying, “Hi, I’m Linden, I hate myself, and I’m sad, and I’m totally confused, and I really like to ignore the obvious. I’m not like a real person, I’m like a living nightmare where you can’t walk very fast and people are laughing at you.”

    • davidlomax

      Hi Scot,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment. Obviously, I could not disagree more. I like reading Donaldson’s tortured protagonists. I find that when the action comes, it comes as a kind of blaze of light that’s all the better for my having had to wait for it, and all the more meaningful for its being the result of Linden’s or Covenant’s (or whoever’s) agonized choice. I’ve always liked the almost tough and unusual choices Donaldson’s characters make.

      So let me ask you this: having gone this far, having read the thousands of pages that got you to this one, are you really going to miss the last one? On his site, Donaldson says it ought to be out next fall. Can you resist?

      All the best,

      David

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