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The Best Of Stephen R. Donaldson

01/04/2012. Contributed by Eamonn Murphy

Buy The Best Of Stephen R. Donaldson in the USA - or Buy The Best Of Stephen R. Donaldson in the UK

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pub: Subterranean Press. 438 page deluxe hardback. Price: $40.00 (US). ISBN: 978-1-59606-367-9.

check out website: www.subterraneanpress.com

Herein collected is the best shorter fiction of Stephen R. Donaldson, famed for such lengthy works as ‘The Chronicles Of Thomas Covenant’ which are reputedly verbose, especially the last trilogy. As I could never get past the first hundred pages of ‘Lord Foul’s Bane’ this doesn’t affect me much. In the interests of establishing reviewer impartiality, let me add that I think ‘Mordant’s Need’ is probably the best fantasy I have ever read.

‘Daughter Of Regals’ opens this collection. The Regals are a line of powerful Creatures who rule over the Three Kingdoms of Nadal, Canna and Lodan which would otherwise be at war over resources because Nadal has no food, Canna has no wood and Lodan has no metals. This peculiar geography is unlikely and wasn’t even necessary to the story as they could just be at war for the usual reasons. Anyway, Chrysallis is the latest in the line of Regals and because she was not of age, a Mage called Ryzel has ruled on her behalf until now, the day of Ascension, when she is due to mount the throne at midnight. If there is no magic in her and there has been no sign of any yet, the magical throne will reject her and the Three Kingdoms will challenge her authority. Much plotting and scheming comes to fruition over the course of this single night and Chrysallis is tested mightily. Much plotting went into it and the twists and turns keep it interesting. For a mere man, Donaldson also does a convincing job of first person female narration.

I will skip lightly over ‘Mythological Beast’ which was a slight story about a man in a safe, secure future world turning into a unicorn. Deftly handled but basically silly. By contrast, ‘Animal Lover’ is a lively Science Fiction tale of a cyborg federal agent investigating a sinister safari park in 2011. As it was written in 1978, the vision of 2011 is interesting with cyborg federal agents for a start. Man has walked on the Moon but the biggest problem facing humanity is social unrest, riots and the like. Modern man does not have enough outlets for his aggression and the government’s main focus, to keep order, is providing release. Hunting does this for the rich and racing cars (on tracks) does it for the common man. The animals in the story are great, like something the late lamented Steve Gerber might have dreamed up for Howard the Duck. With the right artist, it would make a super graphic novel but works fine as prose.

‘Unworthy Of The Angel’ is about saving souls. Angels seem to have made it into Hollywood films lately but this dates from 1983 before they were trendy. It’s a moving story of a sister’s dedication to her sculptor brother and of his naked ambition to get his work recognized. The gallery owner who offers to bring him fame and glory is a smooth individual, rather like De Nero’s Louis Cypher in ‘Angel Heart’ (1987), again post-dating this story. There were sufficient challenges and plot twists to make it a gripping yarn and the yearning for success is obviously something any artist must feel. Donaldson famously submitted his first great work to every publisher in the U.S. and was rejected by A through Z then went back to A and started all over again. Persistence obviously paid off or perhaps the devil helped him and this is autobiographical.

‘The Conqueror Worm’ is a tale of suburban middle class marital discord with a giant centipede for added colour. I detected black humour in it but that might just be me.

‘Ser Visals Tale’ is unusual for a modern story in that it has the framing device of a narrator telling the story, as in some of Conrad’s work such as ’Lord Jim’ and ’Youth’. It’s basically a story about witches being hunted by men of God with innocents caught in the middle. Names have been changed to protect the innocent but it’s a robust condemnation of the power and corruption of the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages. Well told with a satisfying conclusion but a bit overblown. The plot didn’t really justify the wordage.

It takes a long time for the title character of ‘Reave The Just’ to make an appearance in another slowly developed tale of rural fantasy folk and their troubles. When he does the build up does not really justify the result because he isn’t really all that awesome physically. As often with Donaldson, it is the moral case that counts though.

‘The Woman Who Loved Pigs’ is another simple rural character but when she rescues a stray pig and dedicates herself to looking after it there are surprising outcomes. The pig (this is a spoiler) is a wizard hiding out from his enemies. This was another slow story but that’s Donaldson’s style.

‘The Kings Of Tarshish Shall Bring Gifts’ shows us why hereditary rulers are a bad idea. After a long line of good Caliphs, a bad son comes to the throne. He can remember his dreams and is desperate to have the meaning of them explained to him by the court officials. This is a minor concern until Pa bites the dust and he starts chopping the heads off people who don’t live up to his expectations. In an example of Donaldson’s infamous use of unusual words, this brute, Prince Akhmet, looks like a Simoniac, pinched and gaunt. Simony is the buying or selling of ecclesiastical pardons, offices or emoluments, like Simon Magus. I am not sure why this practice would make you look gaunt.

There is an unusual vampire in ‘Penance’. Scriven, as he is called, can suck the life force out of humans by taking some of their blood, though it is the life-force rather than the blood that is crucial. He is unusual because he can give it back, restoring vigour to the deathly ill with a drop of his own blood but in the process making himself very weak. Scriven has sworn an oath only to steal the life of those already mortally wounded so he is not taking life already fated to depart this veil of tears. Luckily for him, there is a war on. The Duke, to whom he is loyal, is besieged by a Cardinal who wants a stricter adherence to church law and who tortures opponents. I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition (no one does) but we get it twice in this collection with ‘Ser Visal’s Tale’ and ‘Penance’. I am obliged by family loyalty to mention that the Catholic Church is not entirely evil. Honest.

In ‘The Killing Stroke’, three warriors from different martial traditions are trapped in such a room by a wizard. There is a Mage War going on in the land of Vesselege, which actually has five different martial arts traditions, and our protagonist, Asper, finds himself in this chamber with female warrior called Isla and a nameless male champion of Shin-te. The last is the one currently being tested so he keeps vanishing from the chamber and then returning, bruised and battered with his memory gone but evidently having been engaged in combat. To say much more than this is to spoil the story. It unfolds slowly but it was probably the best thing in the book. As so often with Donaldson, it is right thinking rather than big muscles that win the day.

Donaldson’s style is laid back by modern standards. He is in no rush. He takes his time telling a tale. Sometimes this can make him seem verbose but if you read the classics - Dickens, Trollope, etc - you will be aware that this is merely an old-fashioned style of storytelling from a less hurried age. Moreover, he cites his main influences as Conrad and Faulkner, far removed from pulp fiction. That means that Donaldson’s books are not suitable if you are after a fast moving ripping yarn but, on the plus side, the stories often have substantial themes with moral depth. This short collection is a good introduction to his work and might serve as a warm up for the task of reading those giant novels. Like many anthologies, it’s a curate’s egg but most of it is good and some is very good. Recommended.

Eamonn Murphy

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