Friday, January 02, 2009

Loot #8: Books

This is the last post about what I got for the holidays, though probably not the last post about getting stuff for the holidays, or about posting about getting stuff for the holidays.

In addition to the roleplaying game book I posted about earlier, I got three other books.

Stephen R. Donaldson, the author of the books I just finished, Mordant's Need, is better known for his series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. The original trilogy is one of the most polarizing stories in modern fantasy literature: most people either love or hate it, largely (in my opinion) depending on whether they pay enough attention to the first few chapters. They're boring, just setting up the main character's motivations, and easily glossed over. But they, particularly the one tellingly titled "You Cannot Hope," set things up about the character without which his actions will come off as not just reprehensible. but also unjustifiable. Without that, all you have is not just an anti-hero, but an anti-hero that's really an anti-hero, not just a sympathetic rascal with authority issues, which is what usually passes for an anti-hero. No matter how compelling is the story, how rich is The Land, and how well-written is the tale, Thomas Covenant ruins it for most people.

The Second Chronicles introduced a second lead character who was, like virtually all of Donaldson's viewpoint characters, also touched by darkness and hard to empathize with, but who somehow still took some of the edge off Covenant. Even those who loved the First Chronicles often felt Covenant was the weakest point: it's easy to love The Land and hate Covenant, and get your layers mixed up, thinking that The Land is what made the book great and Covenant only limited how good it could be. But that's like saying that the straight man in a comedy team drags the team down. He might not get the laughs but he's an integral part of the effect; and The Land wouldn't be compelling without Covenant being awful. There are other reasons why the Second Chronicles weren't as good as the first, but I think once they dulled Covenant's edge, it was inevitable the Second Chronicles would be weaker. They were still worth reading, though.

Many years have passed, and Donaldson has trotted out his most successful world one more time to make a Third Chronicles, and again we're promised they're the last. And it seems they have to be: after all, (hope this isn't a spoiler for anyone) Covenant died at the end of the Second Chronicles, making that look like a final end too. But these aren't even called Third, they're called Last. Oddly enough, the Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Wonder what that'll turn out to mean. So far, two of the four books in this series are released. I got the first one last Christmas and the second one this Christmas, but I haven't read either. I'll wait until all four are out, then read the entire series from the beginning again. It's about time for me to reread those anyway. But that's not expected for another four years!

I also got two more books by Richard Dawkins. I read his seminal book The Selfish Gene back in October, and in some of the later chapters which are new in that edition, he spoke of some of his other books that went farther on a few of the same ideas. Two of those books, The Extended Phenotype and The Blind Watchmaker, are now near the top of my reading pile. So expect posts about them in a few months.

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