I've been taking chances on quite a few books I have read recently, authors I wasn't familiar with, a couple of books outside what I consider my comfort zone and one of two I got on impulse. The results weren't bad but once in a while you have to allow yourself some comfort food and Arms-Commander seemed a good choice for that. It is the sixteenth Recluce book and I have read and reread the previous fifteen so I more or less knew what I was getting into. On the other hand Arms-Commander is the first book in the series where the main character is female and it is the third book in that particular era of the world of Recluce, something he has only done once before, so there was some reason to believe this might not be a very typical Recluce book. For those of you who like their fantasy familiar there is no need to worry. Arms-Commander is a solid entry in the series but will not surprise those who have read the other Recluce books.
The story is set about a decade after Nylan and Ayrlyn left Westwind and toppled Cyador for the nation of Lorth as described in The Chaos Balance, making it the fifth book in the Recluce chronology at the moment. Things have not changed all that much for Westwind in the mean time. It has grown, preparations are well under way to build the keep that is described in The Towers of the Sunset, but it is still a nation surrounded by hostility and constantly bordering on the edge of starvation. Only Marshal Ryba's foresight and their superior military skills keep Westwind from being overrun. Not that past experiences have stopped the neighbouring nations from trying of course. Ryba has foreseen a new attempt by the nation of Gallos to try and conquer them. Preventing them from succeeding will be costly and it also stresses the need for better relations with their neighbours.
Westwind Arms-Commander Saryn will be instrumental in in defeating the Galosians as well as removing the constant treat of invasion by their neighbours. An uneasy peace between the regency of Lornth and Westwind has lasted ever since the defeat of their Overlord in Fall of Angels but now it looks like the regency is about to be replaced by a group of lords in favour of continuing hostilities. It is time for another angel of darkness to descend from the Roof of the World. Saryn is sent to support the Regency with a small force of Westwind guards. A task that seems hopeless from the start.
The first thing I noticed about the book is that Tor has chosen another artist to do the cover. All of the previous Recluce covers have been done by Darrell K. Sweet. Sweet has done a number of decent covers but more than a few of them are crappy and the Recluce books have not escaped those. The covers of The Death of Chaos and The Order War are high on my list of worst fantasy covers ever. I like this one, having people on the cover with anatomically correct proportions is refreshing.
As I've come to expect from books in this series the worldbuilding is very good. The arrival of the Angels some twelve years before this story opens is truly a pivotal moment in the history of Recluce. As a direct result the nations of Westwind and Saronnyn rise and the empire of Cyador falls. It also seems to have had an impact on Hamor, although we only get hints about that. It establishes the legend and attempts to alleviate the effects of centuries of male dominance and repression of women. In a way, Nylan's actions even lead to the founding of the nation of Recluce. There are lots of ties between the stories set in this era and the rest of the series and Modesitt adds a few in Arms-Commander. He hints at the deeds of Kerial, Lorn's son, sometime after the end of Scion of Cyador for instance. Although one might wonder if the author does not tire of this particular creation he certainly creates enough openings for new books. I haven't seen any hints that there are plans for another Recluce book but I would not be surprised if Modesitt wrote a couple in the next few years. *spoiler* Probably not on Saryn though. He tends to end the story once someone attains the throne. *spoiler*
On top of the various links to other books the author creates a very detailed picture of the nation of Lornth, its complex politics and the reasons for its current political instability. The unforeseen consequences of Nylan's actions set the stage for this novel for a large part. It puts Saryn in a position where her intervention can only make matters worse. Saryn is not a politician but she learns a thing or two along the way. The circumstances force her to grow where she would not have sought out such development herself.
The main theme, perhaps even more so than in the Nylan books, is sexism. Much of Saryn's actions and frustrations are driven by her encounters with a culture that restricts women to being housewives and mothers and frequently turns a blind eye to abuse. Often Saryn is faces with a refusal of her opponents to belief her prowess in battle, even in face of clear evidence, which generally leads to crushing defeats at her hands. Personally I thought this aspect of the book was a bit overdone. Given the devastating consequences of opposing the Angels I can see people get more devious but keeping up the direct assaults is madness.
Saryn's opinions and actions do not differ that greatly from any of the other, male, Order-oriented characters. I was a bit disappointed in that aspect of the story. Being female, she needs to prove herself even more that Nylan had to do to establish is authority in Lornth but other than that you probably could have wrote he where is says she. Saryn does use her order/chaos abilities differently from other main characters. I go the impression she seems to think of them more in terms of electromagnetic currents. She never develops her talents as far as some the the other main characters but her approach leads to some nasty tricks on the battle field.
I was looking for comfort food and that is pretty much what I got. Arms-Commander contains most of the elements that makes Recluce books enjoyable in my opinion. The change to a female point of view does not really alter the way Modesitt goes about telling his story. For those of you who think Recluce books are repetitive there is probably no point in reading Arms-Commander, for fans of the series this book is a solid entry in the Recluce saga. I thought it was neither the best nor the worst Recluce book. Perhaps the female point of view did not quite make the difference I'd hoped it would but I enjoyed it anyway.
Edit 20-01-2010: A blog entry by the author relating to this review can be found here.
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
First published: 2010