One of the most important fantasy writers to emerge in the last forty years is Stephen R. Donaldson, his Thomas Covenant series launched with Lord Foul’s Bane the same year as Terry Brooks’s Shanarra saga (The Sword of Shanarra) in 1977, and from the same publisher/imprint (in the US): Del Rey Books. Donaldson’s work was much darker, to say the least, his prose was more literate and florid. While the (now) ten book series focusing on Thomas Covenant, the Unbeliever are Donaldson’s most popular work, he’s also penned a five book Science Fiction series (The Gap), several short stories. Much like when I wrote about Robin Hobb’s Liveship Traders here as an author’s work, though not necessarily that author’s most popular and widely read work, the subject of this column Mordant’s Need a duology comprised of The Mirror of Her Dreams (1986) and A Man Rides Through (1987).
The duology begins with the recounting of a fairy tale that has a great deal of familiarity about a prince and a princess who are meant to be together. That is, until it becomes clear that the princess to which it refers lives in “our world” and her high tower is actually a Manhattan apartment. In other words, like Donaldson’s famous Thomas Covenant books, Mordant’s Need is a portal fantasy; that is, a person from “our world” travels through a portal or some other means to a different world, most often a world where magic and strange creatures live. In this case, the protagonist Terisa Morgan is a character who feels as if she has no purpose, a shrinking violet if you will. She lives in an apartment filled with mirrors so she can constantly see herself, not out of vanity, but rather to confirm her existence. A magician from the land of Mordant appears through a mirror seeking her aid. The magician, Geraden speaks of monsters “translated” to Mordant from other worlds. As serendipity/coincidence would have it, magic in the land of Mordant is connected to mirrors so Terisa’s mirror-laden apartment leads Geraden to believe he has found the right champion to fulfill Mordant’s need.
This fills Terisa with a purpose, of sorts. Though a woman of wealth, her parents neglect her and she lives alone. Like Covenant before her, Teresa is not a very up-beat person, though to a much lesser degree (she isn’t a leper). She isn’t quite cognizant of what occurs around her, she lived a very sheltered and secluded life up to the point we meet her, and she has little imagination. This feeling carries over when she arrives in Mordant: the wizards and royalty don’t want her around and dismiss her. Only one person (aside from Geraden who translated Terisa to Mordant) takes an interest in her, Eremis, and that interest is purely sexual in nature.
Geraden is awkward; older than most Imagers and still not an imager, he is the oldest apprentice; and something of a ditz. Not exactly a prince charming to Terisa’s not exactly princess in a high tower, but these are the characters thrust into the vortex of the plot and make for interesting heroes nonetheless.
In Mordant, the collection of Imagers known as the Congery is at the center of the political turmoil in which the land finds itself embroiled. This immediately poses the problem that a traitor sits among the ranks of Imagers, for it is their ‘translation’ magic which has brought forth monsters through the mirrors to the land of Mordant. Not helping matters is the King of Mordant, Joyse who is little more than a sack of meat on the throne offering next to no assistance during the chaotic time in which the story is set. His only activity is playing checkers with Havelock, an Imager who has lost some of his sanity. In addition to the unrest brought upon by the rogue Imager and the monsters coming to Mordant from the mirrors, the King’s daughters are at odds with each other and the Queen has moved away from the Royal Palace. All told, the world that Terisa finds herself brought into is far from idyllic and filled with chaos from every possible angle.
Despite Geraden’s seeming ineptness, his complete belief in Terisa as the Champion is a thing to admire. He is dedicated to her throughout. As the narrative of the novel moved along, Terisa came to rely on herself more, believe what she saw and make informed decisions. In other words, unlike her life in our world, she becomes an active participant in her life (even if she remains passive at times).
As The Mirror of Her Dreams is only the first half of the story, there is not much resolution to the questions raised: who is bring monsters into Mordant, why is the King doing (seemingly) nothing but play checkers, and what will happen between Terisa and Geraden.
The second novel in the duology, A Man Rides Through, picks up the story with Geraden having fled the castle and Teresa a prisoner since she helped him escape. She eventually becomes aware of her own Imagery powers and it is up to her and Geraden to save Mordant because King Joyse still refuses to take an active role. In this second half of the story, Donaldson takes the story out of Orison castle into the wider world of Mordant, going from something of a claustrophobic feel in the first volume to a more sprawling and open feel in volume two. The pace also picks up in A Man Rides Through. He only touches upon some of the lands, enough that it makes you want to read more about those lands. Towards the final half of A Man Rides Through, Donaldson pulls together all the plot threads into one gestalt of a story which shows just how well constructed his plot and story was from the very start.
What is especially rewarding over the course of the duology is observing Terisa’s growth as a character with little agency or belief in herself to a more confident, aware, strong, and active character who eventually comes to believe in herself. Geraden grows in this fashion, too, but the growth Terisa undergoes is more profound and impactful. Their growth as individual characters grows as does their relationship. They both grow into their individual identities and identity as a unified pair. King Joyse is a frustrating individual for most of the narrative, though as the conspiracies come to light, his role in the story can be seen in a new light. Donaldson also populates Mordant with a variety well-rounded characters who support and surround Geraden and Terisa, including the Master Imagers Eremes, Quillon and Adept Havelock, seemingly, Joyse’s closest companion.
In the end, discussing any work by Stephen R. Donaldson is difficult without comparing or even thinking about his landmark Thomas Covenant novels. With Mordant’s Need, that is made even more challenging since there are some similarities between the protagonists (Terisa and Thomas’s relationship to the world in which they are transported, and to a later extent Linden Avery) and both stories are Portal/Crossover fantasies. I recall finding these two books in a used bookshop in Ithaca when I was visiting Cornell University to meet with one of my book authors (I spent part of my career as a textbook editor) and had wanted to read these books since I enjoyed Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant novels. I was pleased at the find and even more pleased once I read the books.
The novels have remained in print since first being published; they are currently available in Trade Paperback and eBook. Unfortunately, while the trade paperbacks have passable covers those newer editions discard the wonderful, alluring Michael Whelan artwork used on the Hardcovers and Mass Market Paperbacks I own.
For those curious about Donaldson’s work (and regardless of anything else, he is an excellent writer on a sentence-by-sentence level whose use of language in genre is second to maybe only Gene Wolfe), but hesitant to jump into the first (big book) of a series of ten big books, or Donaldson’s short stories, Mordant’s Need is an excellent path to trod. It captures much of Donaldson’s strengths at character, world building and prose in two volumes and is (partially) by virtue of being only two volumes – albeit large volumes of 600 page mass market paperbacks – perhaps his most accessible work.