December 19, 2004

The Magic of Recluce, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

This is the first in Modesitt's long running Recluce series, and to my mind it's still the best. All of the others at best serve to either elaborate themes or fill in details sketched in here.

The story takes place when the island nation of Recluce is at the height of its power, and has most fully become itself. The country is peaceful, productive, and stable; the master of Recluce have not only learned what works to keep it so, but why it works. Where earlier generations of leaders were simply doing their best, the current generation has it more or less down to a science.

Now, Recluce as a society is based on order, in both the common sense of orderliness and in the magical sense, order being the force that opposes chaos. Chaos is rigidly excluded. Discontented folk breed chaos, so it follows naturally that those who do not fit in cannot be suffered to remain.

Enter our hero, Lerris. Lerris is a youth of good family, he's been given the best education available on Recluce, and he's bored. B-O-R-E-D, bored. Nothing ever changes in the small town in which he has spent his entirely life, and he's so incredibly bored he can hardly stand it. Boredom is a form a discontent, so after a couple of years of apprenticeship to his uncle, a master woodworker, he's informed that he has two choices: exile or the dangergeld.

The dangergeld is an interesting institution, and one that we see in several stages of development in the later books in the series (as I've noted in other reviews, the series order isn't chronological, and tends to go backwards as often as it goes forwards). It's a form of limited exile--after several months of intense survival training, dangergelders are sent overseas to one of the planet's several continents. Once away from Recluce they may do as they like...but each dangergelder is given a specific task to do. If they carry it out successfully, and they still wish to do so, then they are allowed to return to Recluce. Invariably, the task is one which will require them to deal with the root cause of their discontent--and possibly one or two other matters.

In Lerris' case, he's commanded to travel by ship to the continent of Candar. Once in Candar, he's to travel past the Easthorns to the Westhorns (two ranges of mountains). He's to travel alone, i.e., apart from the other dangergelders, and he's not to return until he knows he's ready, whatever that means. Lerris leaves Recluce convinced that it's meant to be a one-way trip.

Now, it develops that Lerris isn't your average rebellious teenager. At least one of his parents is a powerful order-master (that is, a wizard). Though he doesn't know it, he has the potential to become a powerful wizard himself, with the capacity to turn towards either order or chaos. Should he choose the latter he'll destroy himself in a short time, as he hasn't the temperament for chaos, but it will be exceedingly messy. As for order, he needs to learn to value it in a more chaotic setting. And thanks to the balance of order and chaos, Candar, the closest continent to Recluce, is an extremely chaotic place. In short, Lerris is liable to make mistakes, his mistakes are liable to be spectacular, and so the masters of Recluce are sending him where he can make them without harm to his countrymen.

But there's more to it than that. The havoc a budding order-master can leave in his wake is a potent force if it can be channeled properly. Recluce has been sending young lads like Lerris out into the world for centuries, and the masters of Recluce have a shrewd notion of Lerris' full potential. He's not just a journeyman wizard, seeking to find himself; he's a guided missile, and a tool of Recluce's foreign policy. Just imagine how angry he'll be when he finally figures it all out....

I really do enjoy this book. There's more than a hint of wish-fulfillment in it, I'm sure; I'm not super-powerful myself, but it's fun to imagine. On top of that, parts of the book have the whole boot camp dynamic working for them; I always like that. And then there's the emphasis on values, and on doing the right thing whether or not it's expedient (the proper use of power is a major theme in all of Modesitt's books). Finally, though, it's an interesting tale well-told, and the hero not only grows up, he also gets the girl--who, actually, is quite a heroine in her own right. Her story is just as interesting as Lerris' and would have made a fine novel, except there'd have been considerably less magic in it.

If you like epic fantasy, and you haven't read this book, you really should, even if you never go on to read the rest of the series.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 19, 2004 08:46 PM