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Mordant's Need

Mordant's Need - Stephen R. Donaldson I really enjoyed this book. The first part is mostly characterization, world-building, rising of tension and court intrigue, the second is more fast-paced, it gears towards action and unravels the many plot knots with a clear touch of mischief; the writing style is poignant and the narrative has a nice rhythm throughout, my interest never wavered even during the most complex passages, and the realism, the depth of the characters and their consistent development is truly interesting, not just the main ones, Geraden and Terisa, but also the many secondary ones, friends and foes alike.
The ending was satisfying and really fitting to the prologue of the first book (one of the most catching prologues I’ve ever read, along with [b:The Curse of the Mistwraith|28660|The Curse of the Mistwraith (Wars of Light & Shadow, #1)|Janny Wurts|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1328835513s/28660.jpg|1945432]’s), also the achievements of the characters and the many twists of the plot, along with a good amount of bloodshed and witty remarks, made for great entertainment.

There is humor and cynicism, the tones of the book are almost never light though, nor are the themes. The story also deals with sensitive issues like rape and the objectification of women, but it does so with purpose and skill, the whole duology, which I would label as psychological epic fantasy, portrays different human types and offers a lot of fascinating explorations of their character. There is also a superb focus on self-identity, on growth, on the concept of a purpose in life, and on the nature of attraction.

The realm of Mordant, with its independent states structure, is facing a dire crisis and its aging king, the monarch who managed to unify Mordant’s states and stall the ancient conflict between Alend and Cadwal by seizing control of all the Imagers, is unheeding of his advisors’ pleas. He spends his days with his counselor Havelock, an Imager gone mad after a translation through a flat glass, and shows himself signs of senility. His Congery, the order of Imagers he once founded to end the wars, casts an augury to find an answer as how to address Mordant’s Need, and the clues lead to the necessity of bringing a champion into being through Imagery.

Terisa is a shadow, without dreams, alive only in the reflection of her mirrors. She carries on, believing in the pointlessness of what she does. It’s the images which tell her who she is and she lives passively to protect herself from reality, afraid of what the others think of her, unable to make choices, afraid to face the consequences.

“Reality had become like sand, trickling through her fingers”.

Geraden is in little better condition. He is an Apt of the Congery, an apprentice Imager, and the older ever to be still serving without earning the title of Master. An amiable fellow with an “awkward instinct for mishap” and six brothers, he’s generally considered a failure and he is embarrassingly aware of his shortcomings. “His advantages were a willing heart, ready determination, and a quality of loyalty usually ascribed to puppies”.

“He was too many things at once - a boy, a man, and everything in between - and the differing parts of himself seldom came into balance.”

Geraden is tasked to bring in the champion. Terisa may not be the manner of champion the Congery bargained for. Meanwhile, the menace threatening the peace attained by the king of Mordant is further imperiled when Alend and Cadwal make their move to gain the advantage, or to prevent a traditional enemy from conquering the unstable kingdom and its powerful Imagers. Reality blends with imagination, a woman who uses mirrors to have proof of her existence and a man whose mirrors reflect anything but reality.

“How many different kind of pains were there?”

Terisa is truly a complex character; she is an adult yet unsure of her own being. A woman with no real experience of life, of its joy or its sorrow, she finds substance only in the approval of others and her reflected image. She has no self-respect and nothing she believes in, and then she is suddenly translated into Orison, the capital of Mordant, a place she is completely ignorant about, yet “a place where she mattered”. Taught for years never to stand up, she clings to whoever seems to see her, to make her feel real. How can a woman who is so unsuited and so seriously screwed-up make sense of the machinations and betrayals which embroil Mordant, or address its need?

Terisa is firstly defined by the circumstances of her appearance, then by her gender. It’s interesting to see the various characters’ reactions to her presence, and their degree of suspicion or interest or lack thereof, also how the arrival of a new piece can influence the ongoing power game. Some ignore her, some try to convince her of their ideas, some to utterly manipulate her and some to actively kill her. She is also a woman in a male-dominated society, and with this added burden she has to navigate the endless interests and schemes that surround Mordant’s need. The other main female characters, Saddith, Myste and Elega, also offer interesting answers as to how can a woman find her purpose, or achieve power, in such an environment. Like for Geraden, almost no one expects her to be something that can make a difference and this leads many to underestimate her, while she slowly comes out of her apathy and engages her brain, her wits, uses her charm and finally the power of her choices to act. If she can be defined by those choices, what will those be?

“Problems should be solved by those who see them”

Fully caught in the game, and throughout inspired by a healthy dose of self-preservation, she soon discovers falsehood may be her only weapon and she hates herself for it. Still shaken by all the emotional disruption in her life, she slowly builds a sense of identity, attracted to people with charisma and unsure of whom to trust.

"I can’t spend my whole life just sitting on my hands and wondering when I’m going to fade. I can’t. That’s worse than doing something wrong. Isn’t it?"

The whole cast is the real gem of this book. The characters are usually well-developed, even the more stereotyped ones play important parts in the story, moreover their motivations are often unclear (sometimes even to themselves), and with many layers of purpose.

Mordant’s Need is original and compelling, the book has all the elements I like in a mystery/court intrigue fantasy story: convoluted agendas, strategies, feints, thrusts, assassinations and deceit, treachery, policy, ambition, pride, revenge, plots and counterplots, alliances, manipulation, divided loyalties, ambiguity, double crossing, change of tactics, betrayals, friendships, family bonds, opposed desires and an ever developing situation. It is mainly character-driven with an interesting romance subtheme but the action scenes are really pacey, it is like following an elaborate multi-player strategy game with many fronts, high stakes, no clear lines, and a question, “What good are friends who treat you just like your enemies do?”