Friday, January 29, 2010

A Man Rides Through

Since this is a book that my book group will be discussing, this will be a shorter than usual posting.

A Man Rides Through is the second half of the novel begun by The Mirror of Her Dreams, by Stephen Donaldson. This second half hews more closely to conventional high fantasy tropes than the first half, which to my mind is something of a relief. After feeling brow-beaten by Terisa's inadequacies in The Mirror of her Dreams, I was relieved when she discovered what her talent is and acted on it. I was also grateful to get some changes in the construction of the story: we get different narrators than Terisa and the action actually moves out of the single setting it had used for the entirety of the first book.

One of the strengths of Donaldson's story is the introduction of a new kind of magic—that of imagery, or the magical use of mirrors (it may not be the first, but it is the first I am aware of). Some of the possibilities of this magic are revealed in the first book, but it is in the second, as Terisa comes into her own and is more or less adopted by the world's practitioners of imagery, that we see its full potential. Once the parameters of the power have been set, various uses of it through A Man Rides Through are just ingenious.

I'm conflicted, however, on the development of the main antagonist. At times, his machinations seem ripped straight out of the book of Iago, and I'm impressed by the planning and bile that he displays (this is me not naming the antagonist so as not to spoil anything…). But at others, the character becomes a caricature of bad villains, preening and prideful, so tritely written, in fact, that I expect the Snidely Whiplash twirling of mustachios. Clearly, except for Terisa who seems just overwhelmed by the charisma-power like character of this man, he is a foe you want near you soliloquizing rather than off on his own making hideous plans.

I'm also a little conflicted on the overarching plan of the king, the plan that was so flawed that it allowed any of the story to happen. While everyone in the story appears to have forgiven the king by the end of A Man Rides Through, mainly because of his heroic demeanor in battle, I'm not entirely sure that I would be so forgiving. There's more than a little martyr complex in the king's motivations, and the plan is so wonky that several people are martyred literally rather than the figurative martyrdom the king receives. I have trouble believing how easily the effects of the plan's fruition are waved off, not only in its personal cost but also in the emotional cost to the people the king felt he could not trust. When a plan relies on the turning of formerly loyal countrymen, it just seems to me that the plan needs serious rethinking.

The end result is that I set the book down feeling pretty blah about it all. The writing is not tight and is often long-winded and repetitive. After a half-promise of being groundbreaking, there is very little new territory uncovered by the book. It remains a compelling read, because I wanted to find out how things got resolved, but the resolution left me pretty flat. The last few paragraphs are especially trite, compounding the flatness I felt upon finishing the book. I'm glad I've read this again with a more experienced set of eyes, but I deeply suspect it will be the last time I will open the books.

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