A Man Rides Through by Stephen Donaldson (Mordant's Need: Book 2)
Mirror mirror on the wall, who's the scariest of them all
With The Mirror of Her Dreams not so much concluding as stopping mid-way through, it's not surprising that I moved on to the second volume so quickly. What is surprising, is just how excellent the second volume of this duology is, probably the best thing of Donaldson's I've ever read.
Never before has Terisa so much wanted to disappear. Her attempt to expose master Eremis' treachery has failed catastrophically. The honest Geraden has fled Orison castle wrongfully accused of murder, while Terisa finds herself in the hands of the brutal Castellan Lebbik, whose overwhelming loyalty to Mordant's king is matched only by his capacity for sadism. Meanwhile, prince Kragen of Elland begins his siege, while master Eremis and his conspirators produce ever more horrors through their mirrors to plague the land of Mordant. Yet, Terisa has never asked herself why she, a passive, damaged, seemingly powerless woman from another world has been so vigorously targeted by Mordant's enemies, and what talents she may possess, for perhaps in the end, despite violence, horror and the demons of her own past, Geraden's faith in Terisa will be justified and she will indeed prove the one to answer Mordant's need.
A man Rides Through is literally the second half of the story. As such, though Donaldson's style remains slow, and emotionally charged, the actual pace of events is much faster. Where the previous book focused on political intrigue, here, matters progress far more directly, from meetings and revelations, to battles and journeys. Thus, even though the book is technically two hours longer than its predecessor, and was just as deliberate in its action and dialogue, I found the narrative flowed very easily. Part of this is unquestionably the characters and situations involved. Though Teresa remains the primary viewpoint character, here, Donaldson changed matters up and gave us a number of different perspectives. Indeed, the way that some characters who might have been bit players in other fiction, such as the fence sitting Master Barsonage of the Congery, the ambitious prince Kragen or the grief stricken Lord Tor, had their own arks was wonderful to experience; and of course an Eremis' eye view of the world was fantastically icky.
My only minor problem with the plot's structure, is that a few revelations, such as the explanation of King Joyse's senility really should have been made at the end of the last volume, the time Terisa spends finding out about the true motivations of the king felt far more an extension of the previous book, than the beginning of a new journey, even with Terisa playing politics and receiving opinions whilst locked in a dungeon, rather than hanging out in a luxurious sweet. Part of me wonders if Donaldson perhaps should've added Terisa's imprisonment onto the end of the last book, and ended with her escape.
Speaking of dungeons, though Castellan Lebbik remains a frustratingly contradictory character; especially at the beginning of the book when he is both threatening Terisa with rape and torture, and also the only person inclined to believe Master Eremis' might be up to no good, Donaldson does at least here explore Lebbik's conflicting drives here in detail, showing his intensive loyalty to King Joyse and his competence in the face of the desperate situation in Castle Orison, and the destructive; indeed self-destructive impulse he has towards women, and how these drives may be manipulated, both by Terisa, and; more tragically, by others. Though Lebbik is a far from sympathetic character, as with the two lude Guardsmen, or the promiscuous maid Sadith, I applaud the way Donaldson gives nuance, personality, and even a little pathos to characters who in other hands would be simply one note repellent, even if I would've liked Lebbik's history and motivations to match up a little more.
With Terisa, gone is the frustratingly passive person from the previous book. Here is where she comes into her own and we see her truly develop as a hero. From talking down Castellan Lebbik, to repudiating Master Eremis, to the choices she makes about her own destiny. Indeed, the way she sees off an overly forward; if innocently meant attempt at seduction part way through the book is a particular triumph, and just shows how far she's come. I especially praise Donaldson for managing to have Terisa feel like the same person, even as she changes and develops, for example, having her actually use her facility to fade, to remain calm and cool in situations of physical danger or sexual threat, as well as showing how; though her impulses and fears are still present, she is no longer ruled by them. Donaldson also succeeds at that problematic fantasy trope, the hero who realises their own previously misunderstood talent, both by making Terisa's understanding of her talent grow through experimentation and observation, and because Terisa's abilities are never a single use, get out of trouble free card, but a logical progression in practice and understanding.
At first, it did feel a little odd that Terisa wasn't more physically active in dangerous situations; albeit I did quite enjoy the point she gave Eremis a thoroughly deserved kick in the goolies. Then again, on reflection, I realised that; usual fantasy expectations aside, there is no reason why an ordinary woman from late 20th century New York would possess, or indeed be able to quickly and easily learn martial skills. In Mordant, it is only those, like Geraden's good natured brother Artigal, or to a lesser extent Eremis, who have actually learned skills like swordsmanship who are able to call on them; with Geraden proving just as martially lacking as Terisa when matters come to blows. Donaldson also avoids the trap which he slightly falls into in Thomas Covenant, of making Terisa's magical talent exclusively destructive in nature. Indeed, in Terisa Donaldson proves expertly how a character can show their growth, competence and mastery of situations through observation, unique use of their environment, and the change in their attitude, rather than simply being able to roll a few more combat dice.
The whole mirror magic system of Mordant, and its wider uses and principles, both as related to Terisa's talents, and as it is used more widely by Eremis and other imagers is itself a fascinating idea, and one which we get to explore here in almost Sanderson level detail; albeit still with Donaldson's poetry and emotional focus maintaining the mystery inherent in mirror magic.
One of the loveliest things about Terisa's character is her relationship with Geraden. It would have been all too easy for Donaldson to leave the big romantic resolution for the end of the book, simply having the relationship set at mutual attraction until male and female leads could have their final Disney kiss. Yet, it should be obvious to a drunk earthworm that Terisa and Geraden are meant to be together, so Donaldson, instead of artificially dragging matters out, simply lets the relationship develop naturally according to the growth of both characters. To say that Terisa and Geraden get together comparatively early in the book, their relationship provides a wonderfully sweet, fulfilling and genuinely touching counterpoint to the rather grim tone of so much else that is going on.
Grim undoubtedly A Man Rides Through is. So many elements of the previous book which were only sinister hints; including some creatively nightmarish monsters; the acid ghouls are especially nasty, and even natural disasters on command, here are seen up close and terrible. Many of the books battles and escapes in fact possess a distinctly cinematic quality, and were I a TV producer, Mordant's Need (even over Thomas Covenant), would make a fantastic miniseries, especially with the way matters escalate from politics, to horror to all-out war.
Perhaps the only problem with the plot progression, is that all too often, character stories; especially the stories of female characters felt a little truncated. though Donaldson both introduces some extremely memorable new female characters, and gives existing characters like Myste and Eliga significant places in the plot, often; partly because Terisa spends a lot of time escaping bad situations, journeying with Geraden, or the army or Congery, we didn't see as much of them. For example, though we meet King Joyse's middle daughter Lady Torrent, and our initial impression of her as a shy and retiring sort is almost instantly contradicted as she goes off to be awesome, we don't actually see her exploits in person, and are merely told about them later by someone else; indeed I wouldn't be surprised if Donaldson wrote a longer story for Torrent which was sadly cut out of the published narrative.
Other characters who sadly don't get enough screen time include the competent and kindly Quiss, Geraden's sister in law, as well as his charmingly autistic brother Minik. Indeed, both because we're expecting an attack at every second, and because they're just simply so damn nice to be around, I'm sorry we didn't spend a longer time with Geraden's family. Where, seeing everyone being astonishingly nice to that arsehole Thomas Covenant was actively painful, seeing Terisa, someone who'd lacked so much affection in her life, learn to give, and receive kindness from others was just plain heart-warming.
Regarding family, I appreciated that Terisa did get to confront her abusive father before the end. On the one hand, I would've liked to see a little more made of this confrontation, on the other, the fact that Terisa is able to brush him off with so little flare is far more a reflection of how her world, and concerns have grown beyond him.
For all the characters we don't see, so many stories of characters we do see have such a lot of nuance, even characters we've only seen at a distance, like Geraden's brother Nile, or indeed the powerful super soldier initially summoned as champion, indeed with the number of character threads that do come to resolution, it's not entirely unsurprising Donaldson couldn't give everyone quite as much literary screen time as they need.
The book's climax is both epic in the extreme, and absolutely focused, with a full scale, richly described battle, as well as individual challenges and resolutions for its protagonists. Terisa of course finally gets to confront Master Eremis, in a sequence which is wonderfully skin crawling, and satisfying in the way she finally uses both her powers and his arrogance to defeat him. I do wish King Joyse's daughters, Myste and Eliga, had had a little more to do in the final battle, since while both turn up with important cavalry, once they've arrived with said cavalry, they weren't able to contribute much else, while some other characters sadly didn't appear at all. Then again, there were so many characters whose stories did conclude well in the ending, from Geraden and his brothers, to King Joyse and the mad imager Havloc, that trying to give everyone a piece of the action might have been difficult.
At the last, the book's epilogue is nothing short of amazing. I would never have thought Donaldson, the master of grim, moral ambiguity could write such a just plain sweet ending, and yet he managed it, with beauty, poetry and even a little character irony, leaving a book which doesn't just feel satisfyingly concluded, but actively leaves you with the sense of a true journey where characters have passed through the darkness into the light.
I'm almost sorry that Mordant's Need was published in two volumes, and that I've reviewed it that way, since so many of the issues with the first book, the slow pace, at times murky politics, and frustratingly inactive protagonist, are so amazingly resolved here. Perhaps it is that reading more specific fantasy series (including Donaldson's own), have got me to thinking that individual volumes of a series should stand alone rather than be judged as parts of a larger whole, or perhaps it is simply a reflection of my own impatience, indeed, even the fact that my major problem with the book essentially boils down to "I wish there had been more of it", should show just how utterly amazing A Man Rides Through was. Either way, at this point I wouldn't hesitate in recommending Mordant's Need. Exploration of a fascinating world, with poetry and pathos, complex side characters who you truly grow attached to, some wonderfully nasty villains and horrific monsters, and above all, the chance to follow someone who grows from an out of her depth damsel to a triumphant hero, who achieves love, honour and self-understanding, Mordant's Need absolutely has it all!
Review by Dark
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