Recluce Saga – Book List

A somewhat conventional fantasy series focusing on a magic system where mages can control either "chaos" or "order" and their allegiance makes them "White" or "Black". Chaos is generally associated with destruction while order is more creative; in the first few books, the White mages vary from petty to villainous while Black mages are generally portrayed as good guys. Modesitt changes this up in later books. As with any binary system, the main concern is the Balance (though it should be noted that, despite initial appearances, "chaos" is not always "evil" and "order" is not always "good").

A lot of the books follow a similar plot trajectory of a young (often male) person with magical talent exiled from his or her community and forced to wander a foreign land, gradually learning his or her magical craft while making a big impression on the local order/chaos balance. What makes Modesitt's series bearable and even good is the detail into which he delves when presenting his magical system. Most series that focus on the Balance tend to do so very abstractly, but Modesitt turns it into a philosophical question that has weirdly practical results: if an order mage becomes too powerful, for example, the Balance might create a more powerful chaos mage to reassert itself.

The series is named after an island, Recluce, off the coast of the larger continent of Candar. Recluce is generally a haven for Black mages, as established in the second book, The Towers of Sunset. The series itself jumps around in the internal chronology of the world, with the first book set relatively late.


1. The Magic of Recluce

by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

The Magic of Recluce cover image
Paperback, 501 pages
Tor, 1991

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

Sometimes I worry I've become too cynical in my old age (says the nineteen-year-old). When I read The Magic of Recluce for the first time, I thought it was the best thing since sliced bread, and I went on to devour the next several books of the Recluce saga before promptly breaking for lunch.... (Well, OK, the span of several months may have elapsed sometime among all that, but you get the idea.) Now I feel less charitable toward this book. The Magic of Recluce has a couple of problems, none of them insurmountable and none of them alone detract too much from the story.

Firstly, the story is slow. This isn't the same as pacing, mind you—the pacing of The Magic of Recluce is a near-perfect balance of dialogue and action sequences. The story is slow because it takes a long time for the main character, Lerris, to develop to a point where we feel invested in him as a person; by the time that happens, the story is nearly over, and suddenly he's fighting the evil wizard.

Secondly, Lerris seems to suddenly acquire a long-term planning ability that he lacks upon leaving Recluce. He goes from bored youth to concerned woodcrafter, arranging a marriage for his master's daughter and instilling order everywhere. While much of Lerris' maturity can be attributed to character development, I just never got a sense of how/em> Lerris matured, since everyone he meets seems to deplore his idle search for answers.

Lastly, a good deal of the philosophical discussion in the book is too vague for my liking. I really, really love the order/chaos magic system that Modesitt has set up here. However, Justen's (and even Lerris') explanations are too esoteric; I feel like I've landed in an alien university lecture. I get the general gist of the theme that Modesitt wanted to communicate—mainly, that there needs to be balance between order and chaos. However, any serious arguments are stultified by the refusal of those who know better to actually discuss these matters with Lerris. There is a difference between giving someone the answers and debating a point, and the knowledgeable characters of this book seem to confuse the two concepts.

The Magic of Recluce is a highly logistical fantasy novel. By that I mean Modesitt pays close attention to numbers and organization; we get frequent asides that comment on finances, the weather, the political state of the country in which Lerris currently resides, etc. I wouldn't call this a bad thing, but some people might find it boring. Although it would have been nice for Modesitt to develop a slightly more interesting coinage system, and maybe spent less time worrying about coin and more about work in general (Lerris never could seem to dabble in anything; once he tried to do something, he went at it full bore), I didn't mind the logistical elements. It gave me some time to mull over the vagueness surrounding order/chaos theory.

As far as characterization goes, I honestly didn't pay attention to any of the characters except for the few main ones. It seems that Lerris met the same hostile innkeeper at every village (and subsequently had to make a hasty escape from said inn). Even the arguably main characters, however, don't feel very real. Modesitt fails to provide us with any explanation for their inner conflicts. Krystal clearly has issues, but what are they? What really happened in Justen's past? Even more hints or veiled implications would be better than absolute ignorance, the result of which was my apathy toward Krystal's attraction to Lerris and Justen's attitude at the end of the book.

In the end, The Magic of Recluce adheres too faithfully to the standard fantasy tropes. It is technically sound, much like a David Eddings novel, but lacks the truly intriguing hook to make it amazing. Hopefully my memory will be correct in that the later books in this series are far better, especially when it comes to the quality of the characters. I do recall not feeling as passionate about The Magic of Recluce as I did about its successors, re-reading it only because it's the first book. We'll see how I like the next ones.

2. The Towers of Sunset

by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

The Towers of Sunset cover image
Paperback, 536 pages
Tor, 1992

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

It's been almost two years since I re-read The Magic of Recluce. I consider the Recluce saga among the "formative fantasy series" of my youth. I associate the word "Recluce" with memories of being curled up in a massive armchair in the living room, rain streaming down the windows outside, cradling a massive 600- or 800-page hardcover book in my hands. That was the life.

With The Towers of Sunset, Modesitt returns to the Recluce saga in prequel form: this is the founding of Recluce by Creslin and his somewhat-reluctant partner, Megaera. Creslin is the son of the Marshall of Westwind; Megaera is the sister of the Tyrant of Sarronnyn. Both Westwind and Sarronnyn are western countries of Candar that subscribe to the Legend, which is essentially a garbled creation myth that provides the basis for their matriarchical societies. The Marshall bucked tradition by allowing Creslin to train with the female guards of Westwind, who are among the best in the world. Meanwhile, Megaera is a White witch, a chaos mage, and her sister has had her bound in iron chains since she came of age. Oh, and she's "life-linked" to Creslin, so she feels what he feels and dies if he dies. You can guess how much she loves that.

The plot of The Towers of Sunset has many similarities to that of The Magic of Recluce, which will come as no surprise if you are familiar with Modesitt's writing. Just as Lerris is dispatched to Candar for ulterior reasons, Creslin too is manipulated by the Marshall, the Tyrant, and even the White Wizards of Fairhaven to fulfil his "destiny", which is the founding of an order-based haven on Recluce. Instead of the Grey mage Justen for the role model/wise mentor figure, we have Klerris, a Black mage. Notably, Creslin does not have a trade; he is a soldier and a musician seems to try his hand at pretty much everything.

Creslin's self-enforced versatility is one of the reasons I didn't like this book. I should probably mention that, unlike The Magic of Recluce, I don't think I've read this one before. I would remember being this annoyed. Self-righteous male protagonists bother in fantasy books. You know the type I mean: they bludgeon their way through the plot like a bulldozer, swiping aside any resistance with the fateful words, "I don't have any choice." It's one of the reasons I skewered Richard and the Sword of Truth series. Creslin is not nearly so extreme, fortunately; yet the last half of the book seems to consist of him whining that his choices come down to "let everyone starve" or "mount an increasingly destructive series of order-based gambits to turn Recluce into a nation at the expense of other countries". Indeed, much like my reservations about the end of The Ringworld Engineers, I don't think I can condone the way Modesitt glosses over the morality of Creslin's actions. In altering the weather patterns to bring more rain to Recluce, he causes floods and droughts elsewhere. We see these results, but we never really see Creslin called to account for them, except for the toll his use of order in the service of destruction takes on his body (blindness), which I would argue is not sufficient here. Creslin is a war criminal!

Ironically, my feelings were the opposite for the first half of the book: I was annoyed with Megaera and thought Creslin's feelings were justified. She was contradictory and vague toward him no matter how he treated her. Eventually, however, I came to see his actions from her point of view. They're both stupid and probably deserve each other, but on balance I'll have to give the epic award for stupidity to Creslin, for essentially forcing himself upon Megaera by imposing another life-link on them. She is already linked to him, so he feels that he should make the link reciprocal; he'll feel what she feels. But he does this without even asking her permission, which is … rape. It doesn't matter that "it was going to happen eventually" as a result of her life-link and their mutual order/chaos abilities. The squee factor is definitely there.

When Creslin is not forcing his way into the thoughts of his wife or destroying weather patterns for his own gain, he's usually doing something boring, like guarding a trader caravan or singing in a tavern. I am exaggerating, of course, but I want to emphasize how very workaday the Recluce saga seems to be when it comes to adventures. Creslin is just as obsessed with counting coppers and recounting to us the exact meals he orders at inns as Lerris was; once again, Modesitt focuses a lot on the logistics of life. Alone, this might be enough to dissuade some people from reading the book but doesn't particularly bother me. Unfortunately, The Towers of Sunset also seems to miss a lot of dramatic notes. Creslin undergoes a few very important trials, including his escape from the Westwind escort, his confrontation in Fairhaven, and his subsequent recovery of his memory and escape from the road crew. Maybe it's my fault for reading at a baseball game, but the tone and urgency of the writing doesn't always adjust to match the intensity of these moments. Altogether the result is a somewhat flat, albeit very evenly-paced, story.

There is nothing truly unique or exciting about The Towers of Sunset to make it stand out. As usual, Modesitt's chaos-order magic system is fun and interesting and stifled by the heavy-handed exposition. The bad guys (in this case, the White Wizards) get their own short chapters of dialogue in which they cackle about their latest gambit to unseat Creslin from Recluce. Modesitt does get two things very right: the epic scale, with Creslin's manipulation of the winds and the destruction of multiple fleets of ships and enemy soldiers; and the toll this takes on Creslin's body. That was a cool price to extract for his unmitigated use of order at the service of destruction. Unfortunately, these two positives do not sufficiently compensate for the dull or even unsavoury parts of this book. It's not a bad book, and to his credit Modesitt attempts to explore issues of gender politics, from his creation of the Legend to the relative roles that Megaera and Creslin play in ruling Recluce. Nevertheless, unless you are on a mission to read the complete saga of Recluce like I am, you might want to skip this one.

3. The Magic Engineer

by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

The Magic Engineer cover image
Paperback, 617 pages
Tor, 1994

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

I am "on a mission", if you will, to re-read the Recluce saga in order, because I most of the first eleven books when I was younger and then lost touch with the series, and now I'm "reconnecting with my fantasy roots". Note, however, that this is one series where the order—at least at first—doesn't matter all that much. One can pick up any of the first three books and feel equally comfortable reading the other two afterward. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. hops around the chronology of his universe; the first book, The Magic of Recluce, is set after the second and third books. The elapsed time is on the order of centuries, however, allowing for enough distance that events from previous books are always distant memories and legends. Indeed, one could make the argument that The Magic Engineer is a better starting point for newcomers than The Magic of Recluce.

Both of these books are extremely similar, so if you are familiar with Modesitt and are inexplicably hoping for something new … then you aren't very familiar with Modesitt. Replace "Dorrin" with "Lerris" and "smithing" with "woodworking", and you almost have a copy of The Magic of Recluce. I'm being tongue-in-cheek here; there are significant differences between the two—the external conflict in The Magic Engineer is a lot more developed, as are Dorrin's friendships—but the substance remains the same: a rebellious youth gets exiled from orderly Recluce only to take up a craft and become an ordermaster. In so doing, he upsets various people who are steeped in chaos, and conflict ensues. Oh, and every single thing gets accounted for. Want to buy something? Modesitt is going to make you haggle down to the last copper. Want to have a meal? Modesitt is going to list the entire menu and then force you to listen to the character deliberate over how to be the most frugal. Modesitt's scrupulousness when it comes to the logistics of his world is one of the reasons he stands out as a fantasy writer, but it definitely begins to grate after a while.

I could go on about how this book disappoints me in all the same ways the previous two books do, especially considering what an impression this series made on me when I was younger. After struggling with how to express what I dislike about these books, however, I've had an epiphany about why I dislike them: they remind me of how I wrote when I made my first attempts at writing fantasy. Indeed, I suspect that these books served as unconscious templates for a lot of what I wrote. This might be a weird remark, but I think the catalyst for this revelation is the names. There is just something about the names in the Recluce saga that jar me and remind me of my own first attempts in that area. I don't mentally "sound out" most of the words when reading a book to myself, but I do sound out names in my head. I don't know why; maybe I worry that if I am ever magically transported into the book I'll need to know how to pronounce everyone's name to prove I'm not some kind of demon. What? It could happen. But I digress. The names sound weird; they don't often come easily off my tongue. And there are many of them, because Modesitt likes to name his characters, even the most minor ones who show up for a page and then get killed off because they couldn't afford the coin for redberry at the next inn.

I don't want to go as far as to say that Modesitt writes like a 15-year-old. These books are still much better than anything I managed to produce. Nevertheless, the final product feels quite different from most of the other fantasy fare I gluttonously consume. Modesitt, much like his characters, is a very technical writer. His books are not formulaic, but they still read as if they were crafted from smaller components. Everything, from the logistics of living to the order/chaos magic system is logical and carefully explained. When a writer does this, the result is exactly something like The Magic Engineer: nearly flawless in its technical execution but lacking in that subtle essence that allows me to connect to it on an emotional level. (I say nearly flawless because there is a bewildering editing oversight. Early in the book, some dialogue between Dorrin and his father gets repeated verbatim in a subsequent conversation. It's very odd.) Intellectually, I grasped everything about Dorrin's conflicts, about the moral conundrum of using order as a tool for force and violence in defence against chaos, about having to protect the people of Diev even though they have come to fear him for his powers. Emotionally, however, I had a hard time caring for Dorrin, for Brede, or for Kadara.

With most books, one knows at the beginning that the protagonist is going to survive. In rare cases, that doesn't happen, although it is usually foreshadowed. So I think it's safe and non-spoiling to mention that, yes, Dorrin doesn't die (sorry if that truly spoils your experience). Somehow though, all those other books whose protagonists survive manage to make me feel that the character's struggle is worth something. The protagonist might survive, but it's always at some cost; there is always another personal sacrifice or loss that drives the resolution. This seems to be absent from The Magic Engineer, and it's related to the very careful and technical way the book seems to have been written. Rather than surviving because he earns it, Dorrin survives only because it has been predestined from the story's beginning. As a result, Dorrin and all the rest of the characters lack free will and become mere mouthpieces for Modesitt's exposition of his order/chaos system.

I know: it's ridiculous to talk about fictional characters having free will! (Or is it?) Yet this seems like the best way to express my criticism: in a truly fulfilling story, that author must convince the reader that the characters have volition. Modesitt is very careful to ensure that his characters' actions seem to follow logically from their motives, but there's something missing, something just a little bit off. Take the White Wizards, for instance. We get brief, snippet-like chapters that give us a glimpse into their machinations—and these chapters are by far the worst parts of The Magic Engineer, just as they were in The Towers of Sunset. The White Wizards are one-dimensional and Evil. They want to dominate and destroy. Oh, and they pontificate about that to each other, always pointing out each other's actions. (It actually feels like the White Wizards are playing a big game of "I see what you did there" where if one does not explain the other person's schemes to that person, one has failed and will be incinerated.)

The same problem afflicts the other chapters, though perhaps to a lesser degree. Here's an example from very early in the book.

He takes a sip of the redberry, warmer than he prefers. "If it's not intruding … what's your family like?"

She finishes crunching a mixture of celery and sliced fennel before answering. "My father is a trader in wools. My mother was a singer from Suthya. I don't have any brothers or sisters yet."

Dorrin frowns. The words imply that her mother is dead, and that her father has another wife who may yet have children.

I particularly love the phrase "the words imply". Not only is Modesitt spelling it out for us, but he is almost condescending about it, as if he is worried that we are going to miss this subtlety if he does not do his best to un-subtleify it. (And it's not like the person with whom Dorrin is speaking is a major character or anything. This has no effect on the rest of the plot.)

The Magic Engineer has not changed my opinion of the Recluce saga. With each book in the series that I re-read, however, I am gaining a new perspective on that opinion and better understanding it. I wish that opinion could be higher, because this series means a lot to me. Unfortunately, despite that significance and the link it provides to my past, I cannot put the Recluce saga among my favourites.

4. The Order War

by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

The Order War cover image
Mass Market Paperback, 598 pages
Tor, 1995

Spoiler Alert! This review contains crucial details about the plot of this book.

My previous reviews of the Recluce saga have been brutally honest when it comes to how L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s writing is disappointing a second time around. So I want to begin this review by praising The Order War for being the best book so far in the series, in terms of both story and writing! After three repetitive, somewhat dull books, Modesitt has finally produced a volume that drew me into the conflict, made me care about the characters, and found a balance between his intriguing magical system and the drama around its usage.

I knew The Order War would be unlike its predecessors almost from the beginning. Justen begins the book as an experienced engineer in Nylan, the city that Dorrin founded back in The Magic Engineer. Unlike Lerris, Creslin, and Dorrin, Justen doesn’t leave his home because he has to “find himself” (although he ends up doing that) or because he’s being sent away. No, Justen leaves as part of a detachment to help an independent country in Candar resist the White Wizards. The detachment fails miserably, and Justen is stranded in a particularly inhospitable part of Candar. He manages to find his way to the Druids of Naclos, where he meets his soul mate and becomes a Gray wizard.

I love that Modesitt begins this book with a healthy amount of action. There’s no tedious travelling through the countryside with the occasional episode dealing with bandits; visits to an inn and the accompanying yet excruciating exchanges that deal with menu selection and counting coppers and golds are few and far between. No, we begin with Justen on Recluce, learn about his family, then join him on the mission to Candar. There are plenty of battle sequences and some political machinations on both sides. Although both smithing and woodworking make cameos, neither craft is the focus of Justen’s spare time. Mostly Modesitt devotes his exposition to Justen’s growing understanding of the Balance between order and chaos.

The Balance has been a common thread running through all of the Recluce books. Sometimes it has been addressed explicitly, particularly by Justen himself in The Magic of Recluce. In other instances, such as Creslin’s experimentation in The Towers of Sunset, it has been there as an afterthought, something that reacts to a perversion of order or chaos. I feel like The Order War serves a very important role in this series, because it ties together all of these ideas about the Balance and closes the circle first opened by The Magic of Recluce.

One of the reasons this series is so compelling is that there are two oppositional groups, one of which uses chaos and the other order. Yet according to the Balance, that is a self-defeating proposition, like global thermonuclear war. Increasing chaos only increases—and concentrates—order, and vice versa. So the more order that the Black Mages concentrate in Recluce, the more chaos foci who appear in Candar. You can’t win; the only way to win is not to play and embrace the Balance, as the Druids do. It might seem like a somewhat trite and obvious conclusion, but Modesitt develops the theme in potent, poignant way.

The Order War still suffers from many of the same flaws as the previous books. As in The Magic of Recluce, where Lerris’ questions were thwarted by Justen’s combative responses, Justen doesn’t always get a straight answer to his inquiries either (so that’s where he learned it!). The final act of the book, with Justen and his brother racing toward Fairhaven in a steam-powered “land engine” of Justen’s design, drags. And of course, there are the White Wizards. Oh, the one-dimensionality of the White Wizards! I eagerly await the books later in the series that, if I recall correctly, look at the events in The Magic Engineer from Cerryl’s point of view, helps to make the wizards of Fairhaven far rounder characters. As it stands, they remain moustache-twirling caricatures, barely worth taking the time to discuss them.

I’m beginning to think about the reading order I would recommend for this series. Like the Chronicles of Narnia, we could have some heated debates about this, drag in the spectre of authorial intent and publishing constraints and that pesky thing about time being linear. If one has the inclination, one could read the series in several orders, of course. But I do know that The Order War is really good and The Towers of Sunset is really bad (in relative Recluce terms), so I’d probably advise new readers to skip the latter and read the former either before or after The Magic Engineer (but probably after).

Had I read this alone, or as the first book to the series, I might have been less charitable. It does not improve my opinion of Modesitt as a writer by much. Yet considered as part of the larger series, this book contributes a lot to the ongoing mythology, and I actually managed to stay interested for most of it. I’m sure that many of those who share my opinions probably didn’t last past book 3, if that (that is when I gave up on Wheel of Time). That’s a shame, because with The Order War, the Recluce Saga is just beginning to get good.