The mirror of desire
I've always had something of a love/hate relationship with the works of Stephen R. Donaldson, and have at times found his books beautiful, baffling, poetic, pretentious, irritating and awesome in equal measure. However, one thing they certainly aren't is run of the mill fantasy, so wanting to explore a different world, I thought it was time to give this lesser known work of Donaldson's a try.
Terisa Morgan does not believe she is real. Despite being the beautiful daughter of wealthy parents, a childhood of neglect and occasionally severe punishments when she drew attention to herself have left her with the fear of fading, the feeling that she has so little effect on the world around her, she may disappear into nothing. This is why she's lined her New York apartment with mirrors, so that she can continually see her image and verify she still exists. In the fantastical country of Mordant, mirrors are of critical importance, they are portals around the world, or to other worlds, used by the magical imagers as tools and weapons of war. Mordant however is in dire trouble. The aged King Joyse, who previously united the country and its imagers, is seemingly losing his mind, while Mordant's powerful neighbours, the cruel empire of Cadwal, and the powerful land of Elland, are both threatening military conquest.
The accident prone apprentice imager Geraden is sent through a mirror in search of a powerful champion. Rather than the futuristic super soldier he was sent after however, Geraden finds Terisa. Yet, Geraden is certain that this quiet, uncertain girl must be the champion to answer Mordant's Need. Terisa, surprised at her own assertiveness, follows Geraden back to Mordant, to a world of mirky intrigue, where powerful imagers and scheming nobles spin webs of alliance and plot against each other, where mirrors can conjure horrors out of the air itself, and where Terisa will find herself the object of dark designs, sinister lust, and assassination.
Donaldson has stated he always tries to consciously write in a different style for each work according to what he's trying to achieve, and in Mordant's Need his main focus was character. Written neither with the epic, florid style of the Covenant books, nor the stark sarcasm of Donaldson's gap cycle, overall I found the prose in Mordant's Need far more pleasant, and far more readable. This is because Mordant's Need; despite an incredibly grim backdrop, feels much lighter. Moments of humour, and occasional simple monster horror, lapses into wit, even something I'd have never expected from Donaldson, a genuinely touching romantic relationship. This is likely because Donaldson emphasises the experiences of characters first, and the very real nature of the world. Donaldson makes the huge, bustling castle Orison where the book is set a completely believable place, from the need to light fires in drafty chambers to keep warm, to the spring market of tents held amidst muddy snow melt, quite aside from the very real presence, features, and aspects of each of its inhabitants. While it's slightly obvious to have each characters' movement, appearance and physical aspect tell us something about them; such as the rocklike Imager master Bartenage, or the contrasting day and night beauty of King Joyse’s two daughters, at the same time, it also does again, make them feel larger than life, like actors on a stage. Even though the politics and factions here get extremely tangled, as with George R. R. Martin, I never had any trouble remembering who was who thanks to how distinct and memorable the different players were.
This attention to detail also extends to Terisa's experiences. As in all of Donaldson's books, his dialogue moves slowly, since he always wants to portray exactly what his point of view character thinks from moment to moment, even from sentence to sentence. Thus, we get to know not just about what clothes Terisa chooses to wear, but how she feels about them, and how she imagines others feel about them too. All of this makes the book's pace distinctly slow, with lengthy scenes and conversations, full of artistic impressions, particularly since at 29 hours it's quite the doorstop.
Unlike with either of Donaldson's other series however, the humour, likable characters, and more approachable style meant that while the pace was slow, I still found it mostly compelling, even if I had to exercise patience in waiting for the plot, and particularly the political scheming, to reveal a clear direction, especially with the entire book all taking place in one castle, something which is doubly chafing given everything we learn of the world outside.
One of the things which always makes Donaldson's books a difficult, and at times unpleasant experience, is that Donaldson goes out of his way to make the reader dislike his characters. While I, like most people, started off inclined to sympathise with Thomas Covenant, the more I had to experience his self-flagellation and general misanthropy, the less I liked him. Teresa Morgan is equally complex. Daughter of wealthy, neglectful, and occasionally abusive parents, Terisa as a shy, damaged person is also someone most people are likely inclined to sympathise with. Yet, Donaldson takes this even further. Terisa is so profoundly, and overtly passive, so inclined to remain a silent witness to events, and so desperate for any kind of validation from others, she can be incredibly frustrating! She walks into obvious traps, is easily swayed to take another's side; even by people who are patently untrustworthy, and inclined to fade into the background (almost literally), especially when confronted by any kind of mild anger or opposition. Yet, I am certain that all of this is absolutely what Donaldson intended. Terisa, after all, is an extremely damaged person, suffering crippling shyness and anxiety,; something only strengthened by the medieval and often high handed attitudes Mordant society has towards women, not to mention the fact she's very much out of her depth in an entirely alien world.
It's interesting how negative some reviews of the book are about Terisa, some people being constantly annoyed by her, calling her a "weak heroin", or a "sexist caricature", some even hating the whole book because of her.
Given modern conventions in fantasy, I can see where this negativity comes from. When leading female characters are overwhelmingly sassy, independent types, who can overcome years of trauma through easy applications of power, physical force or right thinking, it's jarring to see someone so dramatically affected by the abuse she suffered, who does not quickly overcome her past. When Terisa says she has trouble "believing in herself", it means something far more profound and disturbing than just the usual expression of lack of confidence.
So, while I will admit, the many occasions where Terisa simply stands by for long conversations while others discuss her, or when she seems too easily persuaded by obvious manipulations definitely get rather old; especially with the slow overall pace of the plot. At the same time, this makes the small steps Terisa takes, when she starts to take decisions for herself, or answer an angry bully back rather than freezing, or coming to her own conclusions rather than waiting on others, definite moments of triumph, small though they might seem in comparison to other more confident characters.
I also appreciate that many steps in Terisa's journey out of herself involve actions she takes on behalf of others, giving comfort, advice, or just expressing compassion; something which more modern self-assertive protagonists often lack. Neither is Terisa's journey a straightforward path, she has moments of backsliding, or makes two sided discoveries. For example, her growing enjoyment in realising her own physical beauty, and the validation it can get her from men's admiration, validation which opens her to some powerful influences and forces her to confront her own loneliness.
The rest of the cast here are also incredibly complex, distinct, and often likable. One character in particular who is absolutely worth a mention is Geraden. Geraden almost feels like a refugee from a different, far more positive series, an amazingly nice, straight forward young man, who genuinely cares for Terisa, supporting her at every opportunity while asking little in return. Indeed, if the rest of the book wasn't so dark and twisty, you might almost accuse Donaldson of writing an almost too idealised romantic hero, accept that Donaldson has literally everyone else disregard Geraden, due to his clumsiness, hesitancy and lack of any kind of power or skills; he's actually sent to fetch the champion because the master imagers see him as expendable. Oh yes, people like Geraden (especially the castle's guards and servants), but nobody really thinks him of much account, or considers him to matter. Indeed, when one woman believes Terisa is interested in Geraden, she tells Terisa honestly that she can do better.
Set against Geraden in terms of Terisa's affections is Master Eremis, an errant playboy so obviously bent on seducing Terisa, both politically and sexually, that many reviewers have accused Terisa of stupidity in not recognising him for what he is. Yet, again, Donaldson shows admirably just how clever Eremis is at playing on Terisa's vulnerability, and just how lonely and vulnerable she is. Again, though it is indeed obvious that Eremis is a sleaze ball intent on using Terisa, it is another mark of how much a mess Terisa is that she feels not only comfortable, but even reassured by Eremis attentions, especially when Eremis directly addresses the question of her existence. Indeed her journey (often fraught and extremely dark), in recognising the differences between Eremis' possessive desire, and Geraden's honest love makes up a large part of the books' major conflicts.
Yet, Eremis is not simply a villain, but a genuine political player, indeed one overriding question about Eremis is; given how dire Mordant's position is, whether Eremis; slimy though he might be, might actually be working for the right side, or at least having political designs that could prevent Mordant's fall.
Donaldson also gives seemingly standard fantasy characters their own complex lives, journeys and concerns. This can be seen in Saddith, Terisa's maid, who we are initially introduced to by Donaldson's description of her wandering around with her blouse unbuttoned, obviously looking to catch the attention of men. Yet, Saddith is far more than just a one note flirty servant, just introduced to titillate, since she is not only quite candid about her intention to climb the social ladder by wrapping her legs around every rung, but also just as embroiled in the castle's politics as any lord or lady. Indeed, Saddith's bold faced promiscuity, and especially the dismissive and; on one occasion, down right cruel attitude she displays towards Geraden is an interesting counterpoint to Eremis' seductions.
Unfortunately, the politics does get a little too tangled on occasion, especially because Terisa's role (especially at the start of the book), is mostly to be confided in by various groups or people, who believe she has more power than she does. Combine this with the book's extremely slow pace, and things get pretty murky, indeed on one occasion, Donaldson even has Terisa straight out just forget about one promise not to tell one person about another person's intentions, since there was no other way for the plot; and the plotting, to continue.
That being said, there was always more going on. Hints at a wide and diverse world, and the even more diverse worlds available through the mirrors, or the genuinely touching, and occasionally even humorous interactions Terisa has with Geraden. Donaldson also does not neglect action or horror either, and the constant theme of whether Terisa, and indeed the other things conjured from mirrors are in fact real or not is a fascinating discussion. I particularly liked the point when someone asked why people from the real world and the fantastic world speak the same language.
Though written in the eighties, and heavily concerned with matters of male and female power and sexual relations, Donaldson generally avoids preaching, or cliches, so long as Terisa's general helplessness and passivity is seen as a function of her mental state, rather than her gender, especially considering that though he does not have many other female characters, those who are there, such as the King's daughters Myste and Elega, are just as complex and nuanced as any of the male characters. He even has two leering, sexually crude guardsmen prove surprisingly heroic. Unfortunately, the one character Donaldson failed with here is Castellan Lebbick; the castle's commander.
We learn, quite early on, that Lebbik's wife has recently died. We further learn that shortly after they were married, Lebbik was forced to watch a group of soldiers from the Elland nation rape and torture his wife, and that King Joyse gave him chance to get revenge. This certainly explains Lebbik's abrasive personality, and his absolute loyalty to the king, what it does not explain, is the mingled violent desire and suspicion he bears towards Terisa.
Lebbik is the one character besides Terisa we get a viewpoint from, and it's a rather confusing one. That such an intensively traumatic experience as Lebbik's would leave scars is obvious, however, I just don't see the connection between Lebbik's experience, and his present attitude, an attitude he apparently bears, at least in a low key sense, towards all women.
On one occasion when he actually goes so far as to strike Terisa, she snaps him out of his rage by asking him what his wife would think of him.
Thus, not only was Lebbik's perspective the only other viewpoint we have in the book, besides Terisa's, severely jarring in terms of breaking up the action, it also felt as if Lebbik's motivations were badly confused. After all, one would expect someone with Lebbik's background to be more harsh towards perpetrators of violence against women; especially given Mordant's medieval honour code concerning protecting ladies. Of course, people often have contradictory attitudes or conflicting ideas, however, if we're expected to follow a character through a direct viewpoint, they should at least be understandable, and while Donaldson obviously had something definite to say with Lebbik, given the absolute contrast between his history and his attitudes, I'm genuinely not sure what it is.
Though the plot moves slowly, it still works up to a climax, and one appropriately enough based around the motivations of its characters and some of the ideas Donaldson has played with concerning gender relations, with one character’s ill-advised, if understandable protest to Mordant's protective, repressive attitude towards women; a protest made rather ironic by the esteem said character is held in.
However, other aspects of the climax are a little unsatisfactory. In particular, one scene in which Terisa rejects Eremis' attention in front of Geraden, and yet neglects to actually indicate to Geraden that she's unhappy with Eremis affections was actively painful. This leads events to a severe misunderstanding spiral, which finishes with a political coup gone wrong, and a cliffhanger of the worst sort, with the action literally stopping dead at a place which is not merely unresolved, but actively irritating.
Again, while Terisa's final moment of weakness is to an extent understandable, at the same time, finishing the book with Terisa continuing to be the helpless damsel, and what's worse, a helpless damsel who inadvertently hurts a very good man by her sheer helplessness, was downright irksome!
That being said, Mirror of Her Dreams is literally the first half of a story, rather than the first volume, indeed looking at the second book, it actually begins with part 3, chapter 27. So it's not surprising that this does not feel complete. Had I realised how literally connected both books are, I likely would not have bothered stopping between them.
Mirror of Her Dreams is; like all of Donaldson's works, a difficult book. At times disturbing, frustrating or turgid, yet with an undercurrent of wonder, wit and even sweetness. It explores some interesting ideas and dark themes, and goes to some genuinely disturbing places. It's not something I started lightly, and yet something I absolutely wanted to finish. Though its main character is an incredibly damselly damsel, Terisa is probably the most 3 dimensional, and understandable damsel I've seen, albeit that I really hope this will change in the next volume.
Provided someone has the very necessary portion of patience, and doesn't mind spending time with a damaged, and at times wildly irritating main character, looking into this mirror will be a worthwhile experience.
Review by Dark
8.2/10 from 1 reviews
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