June 07, 2011

A delicate balancing act

By L.E. Modesitt
Review by
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Until recently, L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s 16-book (and counting) Saga of Recluce was one of the few substantial epic fantasy series of which I had not read at least a book or two. (My apologies to Terry Goodkind, as well.) The release of Tor’s 20th Anniversary Edition of The Magic of Recluce,the first book in the series, seemed like a good time to redress that oversight.

The Magic of Recluceis told mostly from the perspective of 15-year-old Lerris as he embarks on a forced exodus from his home on the orderly isle of Recluce into the chaotic, dangerous continent of Candar. That dichotomy—between order and chaos—underpins both the action of the book as well as the system of magic that rules both Candar and Recluce.

On his island home, Lerris finds life orderly, staid and unrelentingly dull—feelings many teens can identify with. Unfortunately, on order-dominated Recluce, there’s no room for shiftlessness, and Lerris soon finds himself having to choose between permanent exile or the dangergeld. This latter option, best described as a sort of mission trip from hell, can allow for a return to Recluce—if he can survive it.

After a brief training session with some other Recluce rejects/misfits, Lerris and his fellow dangergelders are set down in Freetown on the coast of Candar, from where they will each set forth individually.

From the start, Lerris encounters danger and hostility as he attempts to fulfill the maddeningly vague directive of his personal mission. Candar is a land where chaos thrives, both in general and in the person of white wizards such as Antonin. Making matters worse, both Lerris and the reader soon get an uneasy sense that the very chaos rampant in Candar might just be the price paid for the stability and safety that Recluce enjoys—and that Recluce might have an active role in exacting that price.

Throughout The Magic of Recluce, Modesitt Jr. maintains a distinctly anti-epic vibe. To some extent, “epic” encounters require epic certainty. Sauron wants to subjugate all of Middle Earth, Lord Foul is out to destroy the Land, and even that nasty tribe of goblins wants to eradicate the brave humans of insert-name-here! The lines are drawn, and though Good can experiences some hiccups in execution, it’s definitely opposed to Evil. But in Modesitt Jr.’s world, Order and Chaos, and not Good and Evil, are the prime players. (Good and Evil are more like sub-contractors.) And the two are inseparable—Order cannot wax (and Chaos wane) in one area without that equation being reversed elsewhere. This leads to a complexity that leads, if anything, to anti-epic uncertainty.

As a result, even incipient order-masters like Lerris spend much of their time trying to figure out exactly what actions, if any, are called for. It leads to a pace that some readers will find slow (though not necessarily unenjoyable), while leading others to appreciate Lerris’ own frustration with the opaque machinations of Recluce’s order-masters. The result? A dangergeld-ish journey for the reader into a complex variation on the traditional fantasy themes of good versus evil. Will reader interest survive? The 15 books in the series that followed The Magic of Recluce suggest the answer is, “Yes.”

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