The Mirror of Her Dreams (Mordant’s Need, vol. I)

June 7, 2009 at 12:47 am (Fantasy) ()

The Mirror of Her Dreams by Stephen R. Donaldson

The Mirror of Her Dreams by Stephen R. Donaldson

The Mirror of Her Dreams by Stephen R. Donaldson
Del Rey, 1st mass-market printing, 1987
627 pages

Synopsis & Review: Terisa Morgan lives alone and unloved. Though financially supported by her wealthy, neglectful father, she takes a job as secretary in a small, ineffectual mission to fill the void in her life. She has no friends, and people often seem to look right through her. To assure herself that she still exits, Terisa lives surrounded by mirrors, the only thing that can persuade her of her reality. One dark, difficult night, and man comes through one of her mirrors, shattering it. He introduces himself as Geraden, an Apt, or apprentice Imager, sent by the Congery of Imagers to seek the augured champion to save Mordant in her darkest hour. Though Terisa’s apartment is not where he meant to go for the champion, Geraden believes she must be important, and begs her to return with him to save Mordant. Much to her surprise, Terisa accepts, and is drawn through her mirror with him.

She finds herself in a fantastic world, one in which mirrors do not reflect the world around them, but instead are windows to other places or other worlds, and can only be used by Imagers. A rogue Imager threatens the world, and Mordant in particular, translating horrors into the land to destroy it. Mordant’s King Joyse, who once saved Mordant and won its independence from the avaricious countries of Alend and Cadwal, has succumbed to senility. His closest advisor, the Adept Havelock, is a madman obsessed with hop-board (checkers). Joyse’s daughters and lords of the realm are rebelling, and the Congery of Imagers cannot even agree between themselves whether the Images in their mirrors are real, or whether they only exist after translation. Individual Masters such as Eremis, Barsongae, and Quillon, all strive in different directions, but who s to say which is heading toward treachery? Add to that the threat of war from Alend and Cadwal. Into this quagmire Terisa stumbles, and for the first time in her life, not only does someone pay attention to her, but she becomes the center of attention. Every faction believes she is important, though no one—including Terisa herself-knows how. Everyone in this world is plotting, some to save Mordant and some to destroy it, but in a world where mirrors don’t reflect, no one is who they seem.

The Mirror of Her Dreams is the first volume of the two-part Mordant’s Need, and I recommend having the second volume, A Man Rides Through handy for when you finish it, because TMoHD ends on a major cliffhanger.
Though fairly long (the two books could almost be four), this isn’t an epic populated by archetypes, and Donaldson’s writing is far less operatic than it is in his more well-known series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. This is fantasy on a small scale, concentrating on people and their actions, rather than on magic and the world it inhabits. Though there is an extensive cast of characters, they are all fully realized, as Donaldson takes his time sketching their personalities and motivations; because of the care and detail put into their creations, the characters’ actions are firmly grounded in reality. People drive the story, and far more time is spent on their conversations and musings than in battle or magic. It begins with a steady, deliberate pace as Donaldson carefully introduces the many characters and lays out the foundation for all the intrigues.

Also driving the story are the political machinations engaged in by the various factions; as Terisa picks her way through the web of deceit that is Mordant, so do other characters, as well as the reader. One of Donaldson’s strengths lies in his ability to effectively create a political mystery for his characters and readers to solve; unlike some authors, his puzzles withstand scrutiny and are comprehensible. As the reader moves through the novel, their understanding grows in direct proportion to Terisa’s—sometimes faster than hers, for she is hampered by her own limitations.

The many layers of intrigue add to the dense, almost claustrophobic atmosphere created by Donaldson. Much of the action takes place inside the castle Orison, and the rest in Mordant proper. We hear about Cadwal and Alend, but of nothing farther away than them, though it is mentioned a few times that the former is wealthy due to its contact with other realms. Mordant and its neighbors Cadwal and Alend are in a tight, self-contained world, another component of the smaller, more personal scale of Mordant’s Need when compared to some other prominent fantasy works.

I first read TMoHD and AMRT in ninth grade, after finding them in the Kaiser High School library. They are among the books I remember best from that time in my life, and continued to stand out for years (others I recall include Saint Saturn’s School for Girls, Silver, and the Dortmunder books). I re-read them again in my junior or senior year, and when I chanced upon the pair in paperback at The Book Box in Tigard, I pounced. It was the owner of The Book Box who mentioned to me the misogyny she felt was endemic in Donaldson’s work, a complaint I have heard about Mordant’s Need in particular. Having read none of Donaldson’s oeuvre but Mordant’s Need, I cannot comment on that. But I can understand such concerns about Mordant’s Need.

Terisa and Geraden are the unlikely heroes so beloved by fantasy. He is bumbling, naïve, even puppyish, and most importantly, wholly ignorant of his power or significance. Terisa is not merely passive, she’s practically inert. Even after her translation into Orison, she is frustratingly incapable of acting to help herself or others, and simply receives the knowledge other players impart to her or submits quietly to their desires. Others such as King Joyse, the princess Elega, and the Masters Barsonage and Quillon alternately demand and implore her to act, to claim her place in Mordant, and her struggle to do so is painful to watch. Because of her flaws, Terisa is easily manipulated at first, but she slowly grows in strength as the books progress.

It is Terisa’s passivity, when combined with the situation of women in this world, which rouses cries of misogyny against Donaldson. There is no feminism in Mordant, women there have no political roles, no position but that which men give them, and there are consistent attitudes implying that women are simply sexual playthings. Some women feel this keenly, and struggle against it in an attempt to achieve autonomy, while others use their sexuality as a weapon. Also consistent is the threat of sexual violence, most often as an exercise of power or symptom of insanity. (I must note that the only rape that happens is male on male.) When combined with Terisa’s passivity, it is easy to level charges of misogyny without considering the state of women in the pre-modern, pre-Industrial world.

An intense fantasy novel with both complex characters and a complex plot, Mordant’s Need is highly recommended.

Cover: The same as the hardcovers I originally read, it depicts Terisa and Geraden looking at each other through a mirror, while story elements appear behind him. Good quality for a fantasy novel. The new covers for the trade paperback reprints look dreadful, but I would love to have copies of the alternate (international?) cover.

The panic which had been gnawing at thback of her mind suddenly got worse. She shouldn’t have spoken so sarcastically, so assertively. She was dependent on these people. With one cross word, she could be dismissed from existence. The King could have her thrown into another of those mirrors, and she might end up somewhere even more impossible. The world of the Congery’s chosen champion suggested itself to her imagination. Or she might arrive nowhere–might simply dissolve into the gray, unacknowledged, pointless nothing she had feared and fought most of her life.
I’m sorry, she thought involuntarily, while her alarm increased. Let me stay. I’ll be a good girl, I promise.

02 June – 05 June



  1. A Man Rides Through (Mordant’s Need, vol. II) « the stacks my destination said,

    […] Warning! Spoiler Alert! This is the second of a two volume set, and in order to say anything about the plot, I will by necessity be revealing things left … unrevealed in the earlier review of The Mirror of Her Dreams. […]

  2. discount Camping said,

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  3. praisescribe said,

    Read both books as a young adult and was highly intrigued. I never considered the misogyny that might have been the object of discussion from his books, simply because I knew that the central figure was a heroine and that with time she would rise to her rightful place in the alternate reality and that her victory would propel other females too. I am actually looking to buy them again over 15 years later for my kids.

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