This book is, I suspect, in its basic essence something that most readers of fantasy and science fiction, or at least writers of it, have thought about at some point: what if I were to somehow be pulled into the protagonist role in the world of one of the stories I’m reading or writing? What would it be like? Could I even accept what was happening, the apparent evidence of my senses? On one level, that is exactly the circumstance in which Thomas Covenant finds himself, and by itself could make for an interesting, enjoyable story, maybe something a little like tumbling through the back of a wardrobe into a magical land (don’t try to tell me that you didn’t poke around the back of every closet and wardrobe you could find after you read The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe).
Donaldson makes decisions early on that promise to take the story in what could generously be called a more literary direction. Instead of a relatable, sympathetic main character, we are given Thomas Covenant, whose catchphrase and personal motto is “leper outcast unclean.” This is clearly intentional on Donaldson’s part, giving us a protagonist and viewpoint character who is deeply unsympathetic to the reader, difficult to relate to, and then taking every opportunity throughout the text to emphasize just how disagreeable, unlikable, and perhaps even morally repugnant Covenant is. What makes this especially hard to read in places is that there are only the vaguest of hints that a redemption plot of sorts might be possible for Covenant.
Despite all of the evidence throughout the book that Donaldson is promising something very different from the expected character arcs and plot structures for a fantasy novel, I still managed to read all the way to the ending and feel…dissatisfied. There were a lot of things that I enjoyed about the book: the world-building was interesting, the writing was unapologetic, and the uniqueness of the protagonist is probably its stronger selling point. Against all of that, I found that the ending was disappointing. And I’m not just talking about the resolution (or lack thereof) to Covenant’s character arc and internal conflicts – the physical climax of the in-world storyline felt hollow and fumbling.
Supposedly, this book is somewhat controversial, with a vocal group of people finding it very memorable in either a positive or a negative way, but I don’t fall into either camp; this book was actually somewhat forgettable for me. While the idea of an unsympathetic main character who disbelieves his own role in the tropey fantasy world he’s either dreamt up or been transported to it an interesting one, it just didn’t quite work as the kind of story that really moved me. I can appreciate the things the author was trying to do at an intellectual level, but perhaps in part because of that I derived little emotional connection of any sort with the characters, the plot, or the book as a whole.
If the measure of a book is if you’re glad that you’ve read it, then I would say that this one passes, because I am glad that I read it, but at the end of the book I conclude that it’s a book that tries to have an edge of the counterintuitive, and instead just has a bludgeon. This might even be considered an object lesson in “books that are much more interesting to write than to read.” So while I am glad that I read Lord Foul’s Bane, all I can finally say is equivalent to how I feel about the book: you may or may not find it interesting, too.