Friday, July 8, 2011

The Magic of Recluce

The Saga of Recluce is a series of fantasy novels written by L. E. Modesitt, Jr.. The first novel in the series, The Magic of Recluce (from which the series derives its name), was published in 1991, and I fell under the spell of Modesitt’s ability to convincingly build a world and people it with amazing characters when I first read that story. The series is still available, and I am currently enjoying reading the most recent installment, Arms-Commander which was published in January of 2010 on my Kindle. That book sparked my interest in re-reading the whole series again, in the order that they were published in, which is the way that the author himself suggests that they are read, despite the fact that the books are published out of chronological order. As of the 16th novel, Arms-Commander, the saga covers 7 different time periods and 10 major storylines, and many of them are stand-alone novels.

This series describes the frequently antagonistic relationship between the descendants of two technologically advanced cultures which have been marooned on a sparsely inhabited world. The two cultures which populate the world are the same space-faring cultures who refer to themselves as Angels and Demons and who are featured in many of Modesitt’s hard-science-fiction books, such as The Parafaith War; one of my favorite Modesitt sci-fi tales. The way that he transitions the cultures for which he has already established a sci-fi fan-base into this fantasy series is masterfully done, although that transition is not made clear until later in the series.  In The Fall of Angels’ we discover that because of a terrible accident with their weapons of war knocking them out of the ‘normal’ universe and into a strange parallel universe, small groups of the two cultures have found themselves stranded on a world where gradually their technology has failed. With no way to communicate with their commanders, they are as completely lost to their families and friends as if they were dead.

At the time of ‘The Magic of Recluce’ their descendants have had a low-technology agrarian-based culture with a heavy reliance on magic for so long that their roots have assumed a mythical place in the collective memory.  With Modesitt’s flair for style, themes of gender stereotyping, sexism, ageism, racism, ethics, economics, environmentalism and politics are explored in the course of the series, which examines the world through the eyes of all its protagonists.  Both sides of the conflict are represented well within the series; Modesitt argues for both magics with equal enthusiasm.

Recluce itself is an island off the coast of the continent called Candar. The planet never is given a name that I have ever seen, but in that universe, the Angels' technology does not work at all, although the Demons' technology does for a while. The magic is expressed as a person's ability to harness the natural order or chaos; the basic building blocks of the world. The feats of magic that are possible rely on the user's understanding not only of order or chaos, but in the interaction between the two and how they occur in balance in nature. Modesitt’s unique style of writing in his sci-fi tales is perfected in his fantasy writing in the way that he shows how the use of the two magics, order and chaos, affects all aspects of society. For example, his Black (or Order) wizards have regular jobs, such as a carpenter or as a smith; jobs in areas where the comprehension of order in the work environment improves the finished product. There are rules and if you don’t fit perfectly into their society they exile you to a place where you are more likely to fit.  The White or (chaos wizards) like a safe, tidy, clean environment but they impose rules and social constraints upon their citizens, and enforce that civil order in the role of the police.

In 1992 I purchased the paperback of ‘The Magic of Recluce’ and I was completely hooked, and have followed the series avidly ever since.  Within the series there are several books that I have ‘read-to-shreds’, such as 'The Fall of Angels', 'The Magic Engineer', 'The Colors of Chaos' and 'Scion of Cyador'. I have also read and enjoyed each and every science-fiction book written by Modesitt and consider him to be not only one of the most prolific writers of the last thirty years, but one of the finest.  If he writes it, I will probably read it!  His work has been one of the guiding influences on my own writing.

And now to the main course:

The Magic of Recluce’ By L. E. Modesitt Jr.

In L.E. Modessitt Jr.’s world, magic is divided into two categories – Order (which is represented by black) and  Chaos (which is represented by white).  The two do not coexist well.

Recluce is an island country that was founded by those who follow Order, the ‘black wizards’. When the story opens, Lerris is a bored, dissatisfied fifteen-year-old woodworker who has just been apprenticed to his Uncle Sardit, who is a Master Woodworker of world renown although Lerris is unaware of his uncle’s fame. He is also unaware of both his father's high position in the community and of his own magical potential.  Because of his dissatisfaction with the eternal, static perfection that the mages who govern his country insist upon, Lerris’ family enrolls him in a training program that allows him to develop his basic mage-skills and a rudimentary understanding of Order.  During the training he develops a love-hate relationship with Tamra, another ‘blackstaffer’ as he is, and also develops an attachment to Crystal, an older woman who is an adept swordswoman.  They and most of the people in their class are eventually exiled to Candar to undertake a ‘dangergeld’. Exile is how the ‘Blacks’ deal with dissatisfied individuals living in Recluce, especially those who have an affinity or ability for either order or chaos.  When Lerris completes his training, he is given a quest and told that he cannot return to Recluce until he completes it.  

During his exile in Candar, Lerris makes some unfortunate choices and runs into trouble. He meets his uncle Justen, and travels with him for a while, but is forced to run and hide after a series of misadventures that are his own stubborn fault. During the course of his adventures he discovers his father's ulterior motives for sending him off, when he meets Antonin, a powerful white wizard. Centuries of dominance by Recluce and their order engineers has once again led to increasingly more powerful chaos mages in Candar, with Antonin in particular rising to great prominence. Gunnar, Lerris’ father, has sent Lerris to Candar because he knows that a strong order mage and strong chaos mage will ultimately be drawn into direct conflict, and that Lerris will have to kill Antonin; and Recluce will win without being directly involved.

At times Lerris is a sulky teenager, and at times he is a compassionate adult.  As the story progresses, Lerris grows more settled.  His love-hate relationship with Tamra is central to the story, and the tension between the two adds a bit of spice to the tale, as is his wistful longing for Crystal.  The three dangergelders all have character flaws that they overcome while fulfilling their quests.

Lerris finds a position as a journeyman woodworker to Destrin, a low-ranking master woodworker who is in failing health, and whose business is failing.  He rebuilds his master’s business and falls in love with his master’s daughter, Dierdre. As time passes Lerris learns to understand Order, and as he does so, he learns to be more brutally honest with himself about his motives.  He realizes that he can’t marry the girl because of what he is as an order-master and what he must still do in regard to the white wizard. Lerris does the only thing he can think of to keep her safe.  He takes an apprentice, Bostric, whom he trains to both take over her father’s business and be her husband. 

There is an incident in which he manages to accidentally infuse too much order into some chairs that he crafts for a highly placed official.  When the chairs create problems Lerris finds himself once again on the run, but not before he discovers how Antonin is turning ordinary soldiers into mindless slaves of chaos, and destroys the means by which Antonin is accomplishing it.

This time Lerris ends up in Kyphros, where Crystal is now a well respected and highly placed military officer. His feelings for Crystal resurface, but he cannot act on them until he has completed his dangergeld.  He offers his services to the leader of the country, a competent woman who rules a prosperous but threatened country.  Meanwhile, Tamra has simply vanished and Lerris suspects that she is tied-up somehow to Antonin and his mate, Sephya, whom he has heard is a body-changer.  Lerris realizes that he must complete his quest before he can settle down with Crystal.  During the course of completing his dangergeld he discovers what happened to Tamra.

Lerris’ journey to learn what he must know about his magic and the process of developing his skills so that he will survive the completion of his dangergeld make for a tale that is engrossing and well written. This tale is told in the first person from Lerris' point of view, which I usually do not enjoy, but I was quickly drawn into the tale despite that annoyance.  I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves a well crafted coming of age tale.  It is not a tale simply of good and evil or black and white.  It is the tale of a complex, dangerous world and the men and women who inhabit it.


Gary Hoover said...

Very interesting. Thanks! I've never read anything by Modesitt, so I may have to give it a try.

Alison said...

WOW! I never read anything by Modesitt either, so I shall definitely be stopping by to check it out.