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A Critique of The Last Dark
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 03, 2013 12:33 am    Post subject: A Critique of The Last Dark Reply with quote

Introduction

Let me preface by telling you that when I read Lord Foul's Bane back in the very early eighties as at the ripe old age of 13, I was blown away.The Illearth War is a powerful memory of the time, full of angst, unexpected tragedy, and wonderful, wonderful writing. The Power that Preserves earned every bitter victory. I was content.

When I read the second series some years later I felt I was in the hands of a master. The Banefire, the Caamora, Kasreyn's Gyre, the ill-fated Quest for the One-Tree and the constant theme of self-sacrifice all lead up to the amazing denoument and once again, Covenant's choice to ward the arch of time with his death was earned, and earned in blood and bitter defeats. Linden's story, whilst less interesting to me, was finally paid off, and in marvellous fashion by the unexpected benison of the creation of the Staff of Law. The mad chaos of the land healed by who else - a doctor.

But the new series had a lot of problems. Most of these I had been willing to overlook. But The Last Dark has justified, and put into stark relief many of my problems with the series.

For many years, I've participated with Donaldson's ongoing interview on his website, and was pleased when he wrapped it up, because I know that as a writer, justifying your decisions to your fans can often produce a bad result. But I really felt that he could have done with the contrary opinion of a solid editor with the new series, especially in the last couple of books, and especially with The Last Dark.

Yesterday I finished it and thought it would help me to put some of my thoughts down, and since many of you have been kind enough to share your thoughts on this board, I thought I would too.


Hyperspace on my mark

Donaldson has a big problem - he has so many players, that to put them in the 'room' with each other he need to cheat, and he cheats often. Characters appear out of nowhere to make sudden pronouncements or change the plot dramatically. Let's see -

- The Insequent can come and go as they please, - through time as well as space, seemingly - and seem to have been totally forgotten about by the time we get to The Last Dark
- Brinn
- Longwrath (oh what a Deus Ex Machina his final appearance was)
- Kastenessen
- Infelice
- The Masters
- Linden's ease of timetravel
- Covenant!
- I could go on

One of the strengths of The Second Chronicles is that we have a very specific geography, and the constraints of that geography, which dictate a quest and approach to aforesaid quest. It's logical that the Quest must travel east to Seareach, to the Dromond and thereby over sea to find the Isle of the One Tree.

Travel mattered, and dictated the terms under which the protagonists acted.

I feel it contains some of Donaldson's strongest writing - simply because he had to work within these constraints. The Illearth War also has an excellent sense of geography - the fact that Hile Troy has to travel away from his army to understand his enemy, and that Elena and Covenant have to leave at the exact moment they are needed most in the wars are dictated by geography. The very Land itself is geography. It becomes a character.

In The Last Dark, the protagonists go wherever they need to quickly, and without consequence. By midway, they can even travel through time! Yet they make no use of these skills, or rather, what use they make seems wasteful, incondign and ill-conceived. Travel doesn't seem to matter, and because it doesn't matter, the story becomes less important.

The forgettable plains, gorges and rivers the quest parties find themselves near in The Last Dark simply do not matter. They leave and get to them at will. It's not important where they are.

Every choice made in the The Last Dark should be important. By turning on hyperspace to get from A to B, the meaning behind choices can be truncated. They are no longer as important.


Let's talk about what we're going to talk about next

In the first half of The Last Dark, I often got the feeling I was reading something akin to Robert Heinlein's last few terrible books where the protagonists talk as if they were the voice of the author themselves.

Whole sequences of dialog sound like Donaldson is arguing with himself, or deciding what the party will do next.

Covenant doesn't know what to do next so he talks about it.

Linden doesn't know what to do next to advance the plot, so she talks about it.

And they talk about this a lot. It's just not interesting and it pulls me out of the story. Once you lack a driving motivation for the characters to actually do something, as writer you know you're in trouble. Readers should not be dealing with this situation. It's bad writing.


The Worm at the World's End, or Beginning, or Somewhere

The final scene of Against All Things Ending promised big things of this book. If the Worm is eating the stars in the sky, imagine how massive it must be, imagine how quickly it must move! How can the quest move against this? How do they have any time to combat it?

By the end of the book, the worm, seems inconsequential. Our quest isn't even engaged with it anymore. They take naps, they have a marriage, they chat a lot. Covenant throws up his hands in the air and literally says something like 'too hard, not interested, let's go and argue with Lord Foul instead'.

I can understand why he did this. The Worm is not something defined at any time clearly in the book. One minute it's chomping down on stars, the next it's behaving like one of the sandworms in Dune, coming up towards the mountain. It no longer seems to be an world-devouring creature. It just seems like a monster with local effects.

But what are those effects?

If it is a physical creature, it's way too small to devour the world. It's 'bites' would take far too long and be ineffectual to destroy the world within the short few days it was meant to. But hang on, didn't it eat stars?

If its a arcane creature, made of magic, or something else, why aren't its effects more noticeable during the course of the few days. Apart from the stars going out, where are the other symptoms of its destruction against the earth? There doesn't seem to be any ongoing earthquakes, or atmospheric changes (apart from the sun going out and the earthquakes at the very, very end).

The result of the destruction of the Arch of Time doesn't seem to have an build-up, or enough build-up to warrant its outcome.

The Worm seems to act in an illogical and inconsistent manner. One of Donaldson's strengths as a fantasy writer is his internally consistent approach to magic and magical creatures. They have a set of rules they follow, and they follow them to their ultimate conclusions. Mordant's Need is a nice illustration of this. The worm - or rather it's action and effect - simply didn't appear to follow any sort of consistent logic or behaviour.


I need a Character Witness

By the time we get to The Last Dark, the giants seem almost interchangeable in terms of their character. There is no First of the Search, Pitchwife, Cable Seadreamer or Foamfollower in the Last Chronicle. And the giants we have seem to be dismissed as mere plot points or abysmally used like poor Longwrath. His appearance at the Elohim's Fane, and the circumstances surrounding it in The Last Dark for me represent the nadir of Donaldson's writing.

Once we've knocked off a few giants, we need some more, hence they appear just when we need them to, under the mountain. Baf and the others have not earned our respect or interest, when they are injured or make jokes or interact. They has simply appeared to help with bodycount - or so it would seem. They certainly don't seem to advance the story or make any points or illustrate any subtler meanings to me at any rate.

Jeremiah seems an interesting character - but he seems far too unaffected by the horror that he has undergone. Even Linden gives voice to this - repeatedly - throughout the first part of the book. But the direction, the question, the issue seems to drop out of our protagonist's interest about half-way and by the end of the book it's not even an issue. Indeed, Jeremiah seems to be more fully in control of himself, and more rational than Linden is. Sadly though, his 'ability' to make doors from one place to another once again seems irrelevant, except for the temple he builds. It would seem that Donaldson was setting himself up a device to get characters from point A to point B with Jeremiah, and perhaps with a huge personal cost, but surprisingly this never happened. Even Lord Foul's interest in Jeremiah seemed to have lost steam by the end. Jeremiah's rending of the Raver (like Nom's) was inevitable and unsurprising. It certainly was NOT something 'they didn't expect'. No one's interest in Jeremiah seems to have been justified. So whilst introducing Jeremiah as a new point of view character started with some promise, it seemed to sputter out, once again, a destiny full of unfulfilled possibilities.

The Haruchai wielding weapons simply made me sad. I could see that Donaldson was trying to get them to evolve as people - and this was an overt way of doing it - but this seemed a half-hearted attempt at best. I have been a martial artist for over a decade, and only in the past few years have I trained with weapons. I can tell you from bitter experience (bruises mainly, a few cuts) that if the Haruchai had no experience with weapons, they would be hard pressed to use them effectively by simply picking them up and having a go. I know that Donaldson is also a martial artist, so I am surprised at his choice as a writer here... it simply did not make sense. More completely, the Haruchai are defined by the choices they have made previously, and picking up weapons seemed to make them less defined. The definition of Haruchai became less meaningful.

Lord Foul himself has become supremely uninteresting. Remember when 'it boots nothing to avoid his snares' and his plots within plots felt meaningful? Now, apart from obvious release from the world, it's unclear what the Despiser wants. Is he trying to kill everyone in the quest? Or are his taunts through Jeremiah that they are all acting to his plan meaningless? He seems to hurl existential threats at them in random fusillades, with no possiblity of injury to our protagonists. His arguments are anile and lack sophistry. His final confrontation with Covenant is just... underwhelming.

I'm not going to talk about Covenant and Linden. Their 'marriage' whilst the world is ending seemed both unecessary and completely self-indulgent. I felt like I was reading bad fan-fic. Perhaps only the original author can be forgiven for doing this. Enough said.


To bear what must be bourne

One of the themes throughout the first two chronicles was the necessity of sacrifice to get meaningful things done. This is hammered home in the repeated sacrifices of people like Honninscrave, Hamako and Caer-Caveral in the White Gold Wielder.

But the Last Chronicles, and most particularly The Last Dark seem to overturn all of these ideas that were put forward to passionately in the previous Chronicles. So many things happen that don't seem to have consequence, or had no price paid for them. Here are just a few, but there are many, many examples:

- Kastenessen meekly submits, and gives up his rage
- Stave almost gets himself killed helping Jeremiah, then Linden, but is always saved by magic to repair his body
- Linden goes time travelling whenever she feels like
- Linden gives up fighting
- Getting hurt is only a problem until Linden can pour Earthpower into the wounded Giants in between fights
- The bargain with the Lurker seemed to have no consequence to either party
- If you lose your Ranyhyn, you can just order another

For the most part, there just doesn't seem to be many long-term consequences to the choices these people make, so their choices become less meaningful. So far, this is opposite to Covenant's experiences in the land where choice were fraught with meaning. Obviously there are some examples contrary to this - Branl and Clyme being the most obvious, but for the most part this seems to me to a real problem.

The big one for me was the fact that Covenant's reconciliation with his 'enemy' seems to have no consequences whatsoever.

He just hugs him and absorbs him into himself. Covenant doesn't appear to be conflicted (ie, he SHOULD now be like Esmer), there's no physical issues, there's no mental issues that we can see. Everyone lives happily ever after. Covenant's actions have just become meaningless - why couldn't he have done this all along? What prevented him from doing this before? Where is the precedent, that Donaldson worked so hard to set beforehand? None of our main protagonists made enough sacrifices to get to this point, discounting the nameless Haruchai and Giants that seemed to die by the bucketload. But to the reader their death lacked meaning due to the fact that Donaldson did not give us the opportunity to be involved with their choices.

The easy disposal of Lord Foul bothered me greatly. I knew it was coming - I could see it was one of the ways that Covenant would 'win' but the ease in which it happened was very disappointing. Let's not even mention Roger, dismissed with a few terse words.

But perhaps the biggest one was the destruction of the Arch of Time itself. In the epilogue it seems there were no consequences whatsoever to this action. It's like it never even happened. And suddenly the Elohim have the power to restore the Worm at the World's End to it's place at the One Tree. What changed? It's like the cataclysm never happened. What was the point of it all....


The Missing Chapter

I read the first couple of paragraphs of the epilogue and I seriously thought I had missed a chapter. Where were the apocalyptic effects of the Worm of the World's End? Where was the rebuilding? Where was the integration of the Despiser into Covenant? Where was the destruction of the Arch of Time? Where was the Creator's soothing words, out of darkness, to at least one of our protagonists? Where was the resolution to the story?

I felt cheated.

This isn't a good way to end such an epic series. You should reward the faith of those that have followed this distance. I feel cheated by Donaldson, especially because I know he can do some much better. He really can be an amazing writer, but this is not his finest hour. I can forgive this in any writer who has produced such great work. But my real problem is that it comes at the end of a series i had enjoyed so much of.

A covenant with the reader has not been kept.

Not a satisfying way to end the story of Thomas Covenant.
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 03, 2013 1:46 am    Post subject: Critique Reply with quote

In lots of ways I agree with what you are saying. I did enjoy the series overall, but it could have been better as well. I think Donaldson just tried too hard.

He jammed in every type of character he could: Giants, Sandgorgons, ravers, fresh, the lurker, elohim. In some cases, it was great to see these characters introduced again but in others it was kind of pointless like The Sandgorgons. Also, while the Giants in series 1 and 2 were memorable - this group was completely blah, probably my biggest disappointment with the books.

I appreciated your Worm comments. The Worm was supposed to be a central focus for the last book, but become sort of an afterthought. And the ending?? a few more words on the rebuilding of the world would have be nice.

In terms of your time travel arguments, I tend to not be as negative on this. Its was used probably a bit too liberally at the end as the characters jumped around but it was effective earlier in the series with the visits to Berek and origin of the 7 words.

Overall, the series had its faults and the earlier chronicles were far superior. But was good to jump back into the Land one last time....
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 03, 2013 3:03 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
He jammed in every type of character he could: Giants, Sandgorgons, ravers, fresh, the lurker, elohim. In some cases, it was great to see these characters introduced again but in others it was kind of pointless like The Sandgorgons.


The Sandgorgons in The Second Chronicles seem to be beings of immense physical power, defined by it, to some extent. Yet with every appearance in the Last Chronicles, they seemed more and more diminished.

I did feel that we were name-checking many of the races and features of the land through this. One last 'farewell,' if you will.
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 04, 2013 1:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

great review condign. I agree with most points. Thanks for taking the time to write this.
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 04, 2013 5:09 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Condign's comments about the missing chapter hit right on with me. The Creator thanks Covenant and gives him a couple boons at the end of the first chronicles. Now nothing?

And the Elohim can put the worm back to sleep? where did that come from? Why is the worm back on the earth and not out in the heavens?

She who must not be named is in anguish for eons, but only give Foul one punch?
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 04, 2013 8:14 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Excellent review, condign, thanks!

Like yourself, I have been trying to come to terms with the way the series ended. I have been approaching it from a more meta perspective (you may have already read this post) because I basically gave up on the story itself very early in ROTE (almost as soon as we entered the Land).

I agree with all of your criticisms listed above (and I could add a few more) and I am beginning to get a sense that SRD may have made a couple of very big structural errors while writing the LCs. I think that much of the excessive complexity and tedious to-ing and fro-ing (which necessitated the use of hyperspace) in the earlier books was SRD trying desperately to get TC back into the story. In fact, now that I think about it, beginning the story in the Land (in media res) with TC present and then telling us how we got there through flashback (while we were getting on with story in the present) could have improved the pacing immeasureably (and might have tightened the whole series up by a book or two).

I also think that SRD tried too hard to tie the LCs consistently to the 1st & 2nd Chrons. And I'm not even sure that it was necessary for a couple of reasons. Firstly, the bulk of the readers of the LCs were already going to be fans, so they would have bought the books anyway just to see what he was up to. Secondly, in any case, in spite of all the contortions, he never really succeeded in making the LCs consistent with what had gone before (at least not to my satisfaction Confused ). An option he could have availed of was an alternative history (a-la-Abrams-Star-Trek) thus obviating the need for those damnably annoying and Deus-Ex-Almighty-Pains-in-the-A*** Insequent.*

With these two structural changes there would have been time to focus on the part of the story that really mattered, the ending. Personally, I think that SRD ran out of steam while writing TLD and simply couldn't face the fact that he actually needed to write another book. The energy that he expended on the earlier books left him with nothing in the tank at the end.

u.

* Maybe it's the natural effect of being able to see the whole arc of the series, but this is the first time that I've actually been able to suggest a structural remedy for the LCs (presumptuous and all as it feels Shocked ), up until now I have only been able to bemoan what I perceive as the flaws.
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 04, 2013 8:54 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I read your post Ussusimiel, thanks. I thought Fatal Revenant was reasonably strong, and pointed the way forward, but this didn't bear out, for me at any rate.

Everyone has their own experiences.

I am grateful, however, that Donaldson has made it this far. Perhaps my last couple of sentences were a bit dramatic. In fact a covenant with the reader has been kept - he finished the damn series! For me, as a callow 13 year old, I could never have imagined where the series would end, or when!

I do think the point about being tied to the series too much is a valid one. The success of the Second Chronicles to a great extent was because the time period between eras in the Land was so great, and the power structure changed so dramatically. Donaldson was free to do what he wanted. Here, there seemed to be too many callbacks to the past. From a fan's perspective it's enjoyable to revel in nostalgia, but it's not necessarily conducive to innovation.

At some stage in the next few days I will continue this critique and talk about my positive experiences. It's not all bad of course! But overall, you can probably guess I did not get what I wanted out of The Last Dark. I guess I can be happy for the fact that a lot of other readers have.
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 06, 2013 4:30 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Great review. I think your points about the lack of consequences resonate with me the most. "If you lose your ranyhyn, just order another one." Exactly. When Elena lost her ranyhyn in TIW, it was heart-wrenching. We felt that. You don't feel any of the losses here, because new characters step up to fill the void as if it never happened. Indeed, this theme of "easily replacable" is carried on to the world itself. The Land was like Doritos for the Worm: keep crunching, we'll make more! (Anyone else remember those commercials?)

Of course the biggest disappointment was the confrontation with Foul, but his lost potential as a character, as a villain, is mirrored in so many other characters. This story did not need a Kastenessen, or a Roger Covenant. They were faceless plot devices that were discarded as soon as they were no longer useful ... but they weren't really even that useful. The same for the Insequent: as soon as they "deus ex machina-ed" our characters from one insurmountable problem to the next, they are discarded.

You're right also about dropped plot threads that went nowhere. Jeremiah's talents were pointless. His Fane only sped up the world's end. (Does the new world even need Elohim? What do they do, again?)
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 06, 2013 6:03 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I don't think the point about the Ranyhyn is particularly valid. When a Ranyhyn died in First Chronicles (ie Elena's Ranyhyn, Myrrha,) another Ranyhyn took its place. It's consisitent among the First and Last Chronicles. Bhapa's Ranyhyn was killed by a Cavewight in FR, and another Ranyhyn bore Bhapa from that point on.

I think the more valid argument about sacrifice is how Linden heals everyone with Earthpower.
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PostPosted: Wed Nov 06, 2013 11:19 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I really wish I didn't agree with this review...but I do, pretty much word for word.

I'd go further and say that, taking the Last Chronicles as a whole, they really don't work at all for me.
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 07, 2013 5:43 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Have you had a chance to do a re-read, starkllr? Since I received your copy in early summer (kicking off "The Siblinghood of the Traveling ARC"), I know you have had many months to contemplate TLD, but have you gone back since and read this book again?

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PostPosted: Thu Nov 07, 2013 9:38 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Agree completely Condign. There was no structure to TLCs and so the entire enterprise fell flat. Never thought I'd say it but I miss Lester Del Rey... never would have let this happen.
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 07, 2013 1:21 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Seppi2112 wrote:
Agree completely Condign. There was no structure to TLCs and so the entire enterprise fell flat. Never thought I'd say it but I miss Lester Del Rey... never would have let this happen.


I tend to agree. It's been clear from early on that SRD doesn't have a strong editor. In fact, I believe his publisher has let him down in many ways, including editing.
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PostPosted: Thu Nov 07, 2013 11:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Not yet, Savor Dam, although I did (naturally) buy the kindle edition.

I've been trying to collect my thoughts on the whole Last Chronicles to post them, but I haven't quite gotten them together yet.
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PostPosted: Sat Nov 09, 2013 10:53 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

I see the last chronicles as a guilty pleasure, wallowing in memories of the great books that came before it. In reality, this final book was The Last Straw, not the last dark, just lots of stuff that I no longer cared about, running from A to B on a whim, nevernding fight scenes, saved at the end every time by some random appearance, more of the whiny dont know what to do from the characters, some awful dialogue that jars "hey honey", annoying harry potter character, and I started to get fed up, for the first time in 10 books, with the overuse of weird descriptive words that you need to look up. Because the story wasn't good enough to distract from it. There were some good moments here, and in the last chronicles, I dont begrudge SRD more money and success from it, but I wont be keeping the books from the last series, whereas I will continue to keep, reread and enjoy the first two trilogies.
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 10, 2013 1:23 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Well, it wasn't as bad as the Donkey Kong finale of the Dark Tower series, but was definitely up there with Lost, and Battlestar Galactica.
In fact, it reminds me very much of Lost (the plot), where you think such intricacies, clues, and complexity abound, until the finale, where you realise this shit was being made up as things went on, and the only way to end it would require more than one betraying cheat:
God in the machine, glossoverphillia, pseudo-meta-abstract explanations, and a quazi-poetic style to create the illusion that there is ambiguity to interpret.
The replaceability element did not just encompass the Land, and protagonists, but also Covenants family. He kills his wife, and loses his son, but that's convenient for the 3 major protagonists' happy ending.
Deus Ex Machina galore... I mean, the Kasty scene at the Elohim refugee camp... Mad giant appears out of nowhere to delay matters, until Convenant himself appears conveniently to scare Kasty, who then decides to give love a chance with his bros.
Then Linden appears suddenly to heal the dying, with Mathir, to feed the hungry.
5 minutes later, there's a wedding, implied sex (isn't Convenant impotent again??), kissing, and general love... someone forgot about the giant's caamora?
Let's skip forward, sudden sailor giants arrive in the nick of time to turn the tide.
Let's skip forward yet again, 200 masters arrive in the nick of time to turn the tide.
Once more, She-Who-Was-Never-Really-Named, whom Linden had done *something* for (maybe it was a hearty hug), decides, in the nick of time to cut Foul's ass down to Convenant bite-size.
But wait, oh shit... the world is still ending... nudge nudge, wink wink, feel good, don't worry, team TLJ has an idea... fade to blur, blur out, and we're in the aftermath of their success...umm?
You have questions? The In(con)sequent? Ranyhan relationship with Horrim? The creator? yada yada yada?
Shut up and feel good - you got a happy ending.
Not good enough? Well, perhaps revisit all the allegorical hurtloam in this The Last Lark, The Final Chronicle of Thomas Convenient, until you can invent something that with sooth your betrayal.
Some excerpts:
"My fate is writ in water", I will pee on the walls she seemed to say.
"Roger -", there's still Jeremiah he meant to say.
"Well that totally sucks", I love you he seemed to mean.
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 10, 2013 2:00 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quick point [great review by the way Condign - gratitude and agreement in spades]; Wouldn't the appearence of the Creator at the end have been problematic in that by that time, TC had effectively become the Creator himself.

Taking it further I'm not sure the whole 'is it real, is it a dream' conundrum was answered at all by the ending[s] we were given. I'm almost disposed to start thinking along the lines of the 3rd Chrons ending being a clue towards TC always having been the Creator - ie of all of it, his 'real world', Linden and everything - all the time, and the whole shebang being a 'Creator dream' from start to finnish. That way when it all gets too complex he can just tear it down, rebuild it anew and more according to want - and walk off under a rainbow. Hellfire - it's no worse than what we were given - or maybe it *was* what we were given.
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PostPosted: Sun Nov 10, 2013 9:06 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Enjoyable post Turiya-Herem!

Captures a lot of people's frustrations with TLD and was funny to boot!

u.
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 11, 2013 9:52 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

To me, Ive always felt the book works best when viewed in the "is it real or not" and that the whole story was merely an allegory about the disease leprosy, which was why the house fire / Land burning, and disease progressing (2nd chrons) and the whole inner despiser thing worked well. I wasnt happy when some people said that it was definite that the land was real, I still prefer to think of it my way. I also could have done without Linden, Joan, Roger and Jeremiah completely.
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PostPosted: Mon Nov 11, 2013 10:11 pm    Post subject: Reply with quote

Quote:
I also could have done without Linden, Joan, Roger and Jeremiah completely.


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