December 21, 2004

The Magic Engineer, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

This is the third Recluce novel in series order; it takes place a couple
of hundred years after The Towers of Sunset and (I think)
something longer than that before The Magic of Recluce.

When the book begins, Recluce is a reasonably prosperous nation;
order-masters are good with plants, and consequently Recluce has become a
major exporter of spices. It is still fundamentally rural, and the
population is concentrated at the north end of the island, just as it was
in Creslin's day.

Enter Dorrin. Dorrin's a nerd. Instead of learning to send his mind out
on the winds like his storm-wizard father, he wants to build steam
engines. And steam boats. And all manner of other dangerous objects.
Such things are forbidden on Recluce; because they depend on the
containment of fire, which is naturally chaotic, steam engines are
thought to be works of chaos. Dorrin's sure this is mistaken; but you'd
have to build them out of ordered materials. In short, they need to be
built by an order-master.

Recluce hasn't survived for 200 reasonably peaceful years by ignoring
possible sources of chaos, and it's clear that Dorrin's going to have to
take a hike. Fortunately, his family is reasonably well-off, so they can
afford to send him to the Institute for training. The Institute was
founded by members of the cadre of Westwind guards who came to Recluce at
the time of the founding; most citizens call it the Institute of Useless
Knowledge and Unnecessary Violence, but it's a useful place to study if
you're about to be kicked out: Candar and Hamor are violent places, and
weapons training can be extremely useful.

The training segment is at once the most interesting and least satisfying
part of the book. Least
satisfying, because Modesitt cribbed a little too much of it from
The Magic of Recluce. There's one scene on the ship from
Recluce to Candar that's almost identical, for example. I suspect Modesitt was
trying to be clever, because although the words and actions are similar
the people are markedly different; but it doesn't come off right. Most
interesting, because here we see the seeds of the dangergeld of Lerris'
day. The folks who exile Dorrin really don't want to do it; they just
want him to give up his engines. They tell him, though not in so many
words, that he can come back when he's done that. They have no idea what
they are about to unleash; it's an interesting contrast to Lerris' story,
in which his needs and the needs of the country are equally balanced, and
his dangergeld is designed to serve both.

Anyway, Dorrin goes off to the country of Spidlar in Candar, and begins
building things. Relationships; business; engines; his reputation; he's
a quiet man, a focussed man, an unselfconscious man, and everything he
does is constructive. He can't help it; he's an order-master of the
highest degree, and the first person to really work out the details of the
order/chaos balance.

Of course, it wouldn't be a novel without some
conflict, and it so happens that Spidlar is next on the list to be
conquered by the White Wizards of Fairhaven. Dorrin rises to the
occasion; and amazingly, unlike Creslin and numerous other Modesitt
heroes, he doesn't do it solely by thinking of bigger and better ways to
kill lots of people.

I've never like The Magic Engineer as well as some of the
other books in the series; but it has its own flavor and atmosphere, and
it's better than I remembered.

Posted by Will Duquette at December 21, 2004 08:47 PM