Mordant's Need is a two-volume series published by Stephen Donaldson. The first volume, The Mirror of Her Dreams, was published in 1986 and the conclusion, A Man Rides Through, in 1987.
His lengthy Thomas Convenant series has been captivating and/or alienating readers since 1977. In science fiction, Donaldson's Gap series was five volumes of terrifyingly brutal 'space opera', loosely based on Wagner's Ring Cycle. And, not to leave mystery untouched, under the pseudonym of Reed Stephens, Donaldson created the self-destructive, alcoholic private eye Mick Axbrewder.
Mordant's Need is, compared to the rogue's gallery above, probably the most accessible thing that Donaldson has ever written.
The books are superficially high fantasy, with all the appropriate trappings of the genre. The protagonist is Terisa, a lonely woman from the 'real world'. She is drawn into a magical realm where she meets Geraden, a lowly apprentice with a heart of gold. The two discover that they have great sorcerous powers and are just what the Mysterious Prophesy required. The land is saved, etc. etc.
Donaldson connects the dots in a strange ways. Mordant's Need isn't a series about dramatic action as much as it is about tense inactivity. The (Good) High King Joyse has seemingly gone mad - leaving a power vacuum as the land of Mordant is attacked from all sides. The books almost entirely take place from within the walls of Joyse's castle, with Terisa and Geraden as witnesses to countless intrigues. Terisa and Geraden scramble desperately to make sense of everything around them - no sooner are they finally sure that they're pointed in the right direction than something spins them around again.
Donaldson's plots are nothing short of genius - everything, no matter how nonsensical, connects. He's generous with the exposition, but cleverly waits until the appropriate time to distribute it. The reader, like Terisa and Geraden, is frustrated and rewarded in turn.
Although the convoluted plotting is worthy of mention (and praise), the heart of Mordant's Need is in its theme - that of identity. All magic in the land is done with mirrors. Terisa, who is already a little bonkers in the mundane world, is pulled through a mirror to help Mordant. As a result, she's caught in the middle of a philosophical discussion regarding her own existence. As improbable as it may seem, Terisa may not actually be real. And, as awkwardly constructed as it may make her character, Terisa spends half the time believing (or disbelieving) the fiction of her own existence.
In a purely intellectual sense, the discussion of identity is fascinating, and Donaldson does a strong job of keeping the issue threaded throughout the books. Terisa is most brave, and most active, when she doubts that she is real - on the simply level, what does she have to lose? However, these periods of false bravery are rare and far-between. However empty she feels, she can't entirely shed the notion of her own existence. She is most comfortable being a passive observer or, better yet, authority-deprived object. In the former role, she's not called-upon to make a difference. And in the latter, she can be assured of her continued existence if only because things are happening to her.
Donaldson's intention seems to be to make this as complicated as possible. And he succeeds.
On one hand, Terisa's ongoing question of identity is infinitely more interesting (and more rewarding... and more intelligent...) than the traditional high fantasy approach of the lead character's token 'Why me?'. (Answer: Because the Prophesy says so.) On the other hand, Donaldson slightly overreaches himself with Terisa's character. Simply put, she's a woman. And, as the reader is constantly reminded, an attractive one. Her issues of identity and authority quickly become entangled with issues of gender.
As well as being an object of magical destiny and political intrigue, Terisa's therefore also an object of attraction. This additional level could work, but doesn't. Bizarrely, Terisa spends a great portion of her time wrestling with the fact that she's attractive to the opposite sex. As a result, the reader is condemned to an endless amount of painfully adolescent 'does he really like me?' whining. Compared to the other, existential, self-doubt at the core of the book, Terisa's pubescent mewling strikes a false and affected note.
Mordant's Need is an experimental series that successfully shows how fantasy tropes and archetypes can be used to explore complicated questions. Donaldson uses magic throughout the books - not to paper over any holes in the plot, but as a mechanism smoothly integrated with the overarching theme. The result is something almost (but not quite) a parable. And for pure entertainment value, it is difficult to stick with two volumes of an intentionally passive hero. Mordant's Need is a rare example of a series too flawed to be great, but too thoughtful to be bad.