"Lord Foul's Bane," the first book in the chronicles of Thomas Covenant, is certainly a unique fantasy novel. When the title character, Covenant, a self-tormented leper from our world, is seemingly run down by an emergency vehicle, he wakes up in an alien world quite simply (and unimaginatively) called the Land. Here, the very earth is a living thing, worshipped and befriended by its enigmatic inhabitants. They hail Covenant as their possible savior (or destroyer), for he bears a striking resemblance to a hero of olde who ultimately failed to save the Land from the unholy touch of Lord Foul the Despiser - and this "Dark Lord" has returned to lay waste to the Land once and for all.
Parallels to Tolkien abound, though author Stephen Donaldson certainly manages to bring something... else, for lack of a better word, to a story that might have been standard fare. Forget the magic ring that is at the heart of the story. Forget the Mount Doom (here called Mount Thunder) that harbors a Gollum clone slowly being ravaged by his lust for a powerful artifact. Forget the Treebeard archetype (here a giant called Foamfollower), and the sentient forests that recall memories of Tolkien's Old Forest and its Huorn inhabitants. Forget all of these things, because despite them Donaldson actually manages to create a fairly original world that is suitably foreign for all its beauty. On top of that, Covenant is the anti-Tolkien personality who will show all of these things to the reader.
Covenant is not a very likable person. He loathes and pities himself, and whines more often than he acts. He even goes so far as to rape an adolescent girl who saves his life early on in the novel. He justifies his abhorrent actions by holding to a stubborn belief that the Land and all its people are nothing but figments of his imagination, and therefore he is not morally responsible for any of the wrongs that he does. He sticks to these beliefs long after they become implausible, and a result he feels rather implausible himself. Despite this, he's certainly an interesting anti-hero, and one cannot help but wonder how he'll react in the face of great peril. His persona gives this novel an edge few fantasy novels have - but coming to accept Covenant as the lead is ultimately a great challenge, and certainly takes some getting used to.
If there's any reason to recommend the Thomas Covenant books, it's the Land. This creation is breathtakingly beautiful and imaginative, and quite allegorical in many ways. It's a haunting place, and the evil that threatens it is certainly a bleak force that you cannot help but loathe. Despite the glaringly awful title hung upon the novel's villain, Lord Foul is a scary figure, and you quickly come to believe that he is the very icon of evil, and that he will not rest until the Land, and all its beauty, is erased forever.
"Lord Foul's Bane" starts out just right - it sets the mood and compels you to turn the pages. A short while later, things slow to a crawl, and don't pick up again until near the end of the novel. You scarcely get to know any of the novel's secondary characters, and care for even fewer of them. Even so, the novel finally builds to a satisfying climax - though it leaves many unanswered questions.
Strikingly unique but also recognizably familiar, "Lord Foul's Bane" is a bit of a contradiction - just like its protagonist. Its uneven pacing, sometimes awkward prose, and lack of character development keep me from hailing it as a classic, but it's wildly different in its tone than virtually anything else on the market. A good book, and a good start to a dark fantasy series. If you like your protagonists clean, pure, and heroic, though, look elsewhere for your escapist fix. If, however, you can believe in the Unbeliever, then you'll crave more.