After a difficult loss, a close friend of mine recommended that I read a high fantasy book called Lord Foul’s Bane by Stephen R. Donaldson.
My friend understands loss and suffering, having recently lost his mother to hospital negligence to almost losing his daughter to a rare stomach disorder.
He said, “Thomas Covenant is a bitter angry protagonist that spits in the face of loss. He may speak to you now.”
In a way, Covenant did speak to me, but not in the way my friend imagined.
Lord Foul’s Bane starts with the sad tale of Thomas Covenant. He is a best-selling writer with a wife and son. The world is his oyster. That is until a stray spot appears on one of his hands.
The spot turns out to be gangrene, requiring the amputation of two fingers. After the operation, he learns that he suffers from Hansen’s Disease, otherwise known as Leprosy.
Covenant’s life falls to pieces. His wife divorces him. All his friends and neighbors desert him. He loses his will to write. In short, he is a man both alive and dead. The only reason he stays alive is to spit in the face of those of loved him.
I was hooked.
Donaldson does an amazing job at detailing Covenant’s day-to-day situation that is both meticulous and tragic. Stricken with leprosy, simple acts such as walking around the house filled with peril. We learn, for the leper, all it takes is a single untreated wound that can lead to amputation and/or deformity.
We learn that Covenant is ostracized and the isolation is killing him. When a neighbor pays his electric bill without his permission, Covenant marches downtown to protest. He meets a strange beggar that speaks in cryptic phrases about another world.
Covenant dismisses the man only to turn and see an out-of-control police car bearing right down on him. The car hits him and all goes to black.
Arriving at a New World
When Thomas Covenant awakes, he finds himself in a new world. It is a world of high fantasy whereby everyone talks in long-drawn-out speeches instead of saying ‘hello’. Everyone has their story based on legend and they are more than happy to dump it on you.
I was invested in Thomas Covenant’s struggles as a leper in modern society. This turned out to be Lord of Rings in a different coat of paint. While I love Lord of the Rings, I didn’t want it in my leper story.
But also, to be transparent, I don’t like high fantasy. For me, fantasy is best served on a dirty plate with a dash of post-apocalypse.
I also don’t like tomes of world-building; a little here and a little there works well. In this book, the world-building is like a massive dollop of sour cream on a baby potato. Once the book switched to high fantasy, it was a long monologue after another until I was almost passing out.
So … the story ….
Evidently, this guy named Lord Foul summons Thomas Covenant into the world to deliver a message to the Council of Lords. He monologues for an awfully long time then disappears, leaving Covenant on a massive spire.
Lena, a local teenage girl, sees Covenant’s supernatural arrival, climbs the stairs to meet him, and helps him back to the ground. Of course, Covenant has no idea what is happening. He’s terrified of heights and above all, fears any injury by nature of his leprosy. By the time they reach the earth, his hands and feet are covered in wounds.
Lena puts some magical mud on the wounds. The wounds heal along with leprosy. Alas, his heart is as bitter as ever.
So begins the adventures of Thomas Covenant and I won’t lie, I was on board for a little bit. Donaldson is an excellent writer.
Unfortunately, I stopped cheering for Covenant until he does one simple act. This act is so repulsive I can only think that Donaldson was challenging the reader.
“Oh, you feel bad for Covenant? Well, what if he did this? Do you still feel bad for him?” If you are curious, I’ve added it in the spoiler below.
At this point, I found myself deep in a book with a fantasy setting that I didn’t like and a character who was a total bastard. Normally, I’d eject, but being a recommendation from a good friend, I kept with it. To my misery.
Just like Covenant, I grew bitter and angry with every encounter. My friend who recommended this book thought that I would empathize with Covenent’s bitterness of his loss. Instead, I latched onto Covenant’s bitterness to vent my frustration at the book.
That’s when I realized that I wasn’t a good fit for the story. So I stopped reading and moved on.
Lord Foul’s Bane is a book written for a different time. It definitely challenges the high fantasy genre by making the protagonist an antihero. And make no mistake, Thomas Covenant is not a “root for the bad guy” type of antihero. That is, an antihero that manages to be likable.
No. Thomas Covenant is a terrible person who makes terrible choices. While you may be able to emphasize with him due to his circumstances (I couldn’t), some of the other characters do act as counterweights to his bitterness. That is if you can stomach their long over winded speeches.
That said, the Audible version is great. It is narrated by Scott Brick who is a wonderful narrator.
In summation, this book is about a bastard in a world populated with people who won’t stop talking to you on long plane rides. It has a great beginning after which, I’d find something else.