Monday, January 4, 2010

The Mirror of Her Dreams

This is a book (or the first half of a book, if you'd like to be picky) that I am reading for my book group, so this blog will be intentionally sparse.

I think I was about 14 when I was first introduced to Stephen R. Donaldson via The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant's first book Lord Foul's Bane. I knew very little about it but remember being very excited to receive it for Christmas, since it was an explicit recognition of my individuality—someone gave me a speculative fiction book as a gift, noting that I didn't follow the mainstream (if I recall the same person also gave me The Stars My Destination, so they either had terrific taste or were just pretty darned lucky). But immediately upon starting the book, I ran into difficulties. I remember rereading the first twenty pages four or five times to try to get "into" the book and just not succeeding. There was something off-putting about the rhythm, which as I look back more critically would be something of an accomplishment, since it would be an implied reflection of the most off-putting protagonist in speculative fiction, Thomas Covenant himself (hmm, off-putting protagonists, Thomas Covenant and Gully Foyle—perhaps my poorly remembered benefactor had a plan in mind…).

It was obvious to even my young critical powers that Donaldson was attempting to create the anti-epic fantasy novel, by just completely overthrowing the tropes from the outset. Thomas Covenant is a vile man, though extraordinarily human and thus perhaps understandable. Having lost his family due to their inability to cope with his leprosy, Covenant finds himself transported to a world where not only has he been healed but he has tremendous power, wrapped up in the symbol of his failure, his wedding band. Overwhelmed by his health and power, his first real act in this world is to rape a woman for which the world forgives him because he is obviously a hero come to save them from their mortal danger.

After I got past the hitch that stalled my reading, I devoured the book and its companions in the series, even going so far as to buy the last few books in hardback in order to not have to wait for them. The world was vibrant and different, the supporting characters were wonderful, and even in his ugliness, I could recognize that Covenant was richly developed, though as I recall, the narrative spent a lot of time in his head, which I found to be off-putting.

The Mirror of Her Dreams is the first half of a novel, Mordant's Need, that Donaldson wrote outside of The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. In it, Donaldson returns to part of what made his first series so powerful: a seriously flawed protagonist. Only this time, around, Terisa Morgan is not quite so thoroughly developed and her flaw is emotionally based rather than physical, and thus that much harder to accept in its complexity: a victim of emotional abuse throughout her childhood, Terisa is not convinced she actually exists.

I admit that I can't make sense of this purely existential question; it's the opposite of solipsism, a game I used to play in school wherein everyone else exists and I am merely a figment of their combined imagination. But while my theoretical philosophical state was just a game, for Terisa, it is a lifestyle, an ethos that paralyzes her in the most inopportune moments. Since Donaldson continues to use internal narration as a lynchpin for the entire novel, and since Terisa's interior monologue is centered on a mental state I can't quite comprehend, her repeated protestations of inability and ineffectiveness just become annoying, quickly. I think Donaldson is solid in his representation of what moving from a world of modern technology to medieval magic would do to an average person, especially in the situation that Terisa finds herself in—a king who is apparently mad and his country under attack from two known enemies and one unknown, and people scurrying to try to save themselves and their land. Comprehending just those two levels of problem is made far worse by the people's insistence that Terisa will save them, such that I don't understand what feels to me to be another, unnecessary layer—Terisa's debilitating emotional state.

The world that Terisa finds herself in is skillfully crafted, and I admire the thought and work that went into it, especially the genre-bending idea that the king knows he is being attacked but that his best course of action is to do nothing. The vehemence with which King Joyse throws himself into this role and the few moments where we can see him mourn the cost of his inactivity are tremendous. It also carefully creates a comparison to Terisa's own involuntary inactivity. The supporting characters are pretty good too, but seem a little flat to me, each really displaying a single characteristic more than any sort of fullness. But it is powerful writing beyond my particular nits, if a little heavy-handed in its genre-bending. But it is also decidedly the first half of two parts, and I am relatively eager to see how it gets resolved—I care about the characters enough to hope they survive their crisis relatively unscathed. However, given Stephenson's history, I rather expect there will be some scathing.

No comments:

Post a Comment