In May 1991 the first novel in the Recluce series appeared. Almost twenty years later, the series is still going strong. A sixteenth novel, Arms-Commander, appeared in January of this year. I don't think even the author himself suspected that the series would grow to such epic proportions. Although the series totals sixteen books at the moment, there are never more than two on any one main character and the entire series spans more than eighteen centuries. The Magic of Recluce may be the first book published, it is the second to last in chronological order. I've reread this novel a number of times now and every time I do, I wonder how on earth I missed so much on the previous reading. For first time readers it is probably not an easy book. Well worth the effort though.
The main character in the novel is Lerris, a young man from the island nation of Recluce. The nation is bases on the principles of order magic and has mostly sealed itself off from the outside world. Very few outsiders ever get to see the interior of the island, nor do many people from Recluce venture abroad. Life is ordered, moderately prosperous and generally peaceful in Recluce. According to Lerris, it is also dreadfully boring. His parents try to convince Lerris of the need for this, to Lerris, stifling level of order but despite their best efforts and a valiant attempt by his uncle Sardit, who tries to teach Lerris the basics of woodcraft, he can't make himself apply to anything with the expected level of dedication. He is simply not interested. To the people running Recluce, the bored and magically talented Lerris represents a threat to their ordered society.
Recluce has a tidy solution for such people. They are exiled from the island. After minimal training in the ways of the wider world, instruction in handling weapons and learning the basics of foreign languages, Lerris and a number of other men and women are sent to the continent of Candar, the most chaotic continent on the world of Recluce. There, Lerris starts the search for the reasons for his exile and the answers that he feels have been withheld from him. Time is pressing however, a strong White wizard is plotting the gain influence in Candar and an inexperienced but order/chaos talented youngster could be a useful tool or a formidable threat.
As epic fantasy goes, The Magic of Recluce is an unusual book. It does not posses some of the elements that draw large numbers of readers to fantasy. It's not a very fast paced novel, Modesitt takes his time to build his world and the character of Lerris before he is set loose on Candar to find his own way. It doesn't include too many action scenes, grand acts of heroism, fantastic sentient creatures or military action either. It does feature a complex system of magic, but one where the consequences of using magic have to be carefully considered to avoid catastrophe later on and where the magic used by the 'bad guy' is not inherently wicked. It's mostly a bildungsroman, I guess we don't escape fantasy tropes altogether, with Lerris gaining a deeper understanding of the world, himself en the consequences of his actions. Despite being bored, Lerris is not given to rash actions. He's a rather thoughtful man, taking his time to consider a problem unless forced into action.
For me, the system of magic, relying on a balance between order and chaos, is one of the major attractions of this novel. Modesitt explores it in more detail in later books but the basics of his order/chaos based system are laid down in this book. There are plenty hints in this book of what happens when the effect on the balance is not considered by wielders of order or chaos magic. Many of such failure to heed the balance have shaped the past of Recluce will show up in other novels in the series. The second book featuring Lerris, the Death of Chaos (the fifth book in publication order and the last chronologically) is perhaps the ultimate example of what irresponsible use of order/chaos magic can lead to. The author is clearly showing the reader that we see things to the order-oriented characters and that they present only part of the story.
The Magic of Recluce contains a lot of details that Modesitt would explore in later books. The character Justen, whom Lerris meets in Candar, will be the main character in The Order War. Cassius, one of Lerris' teachers will star in one of the three short stories in the Recluce setting Modesitt wrote to date. The author of the book The Basis of Order, which guides Lerris for part of his journey, will appear in The Magic Engineer and Rahl, the hero in Natural Ordermage and Mage-Guard of Hamor is mentioned briefly (if not by name). It makes this novel a great book to reread when you have a few more novels in this series under your belt. Worldbuilding is definitely another strength of the book and the series as a whole.
The book does require an unusual amount of patience form the reader. As I mentioned before the story takes of slowly and a lot of the time, Lerris is involved in fairly mundane activities such as woodworking, having a meal, travelling etc. Modesitt uses these activities to outline what is going on in the world around Lerris but the relevance of much of what he sees is not always apparent right away. Some readers will consider these scenes repetitive or unnecessary. As a result the moments when Lerris is forced into action can seem sudden and out of the blue, even if they make sense upon reflection. Personally the supposed repetitiveness of certain scenes in these books never bothered me in any individual book in the series. Do remember that there is sixteen of them however, reading them all back to back is probably not a good idea.
The Magic of Recluce is not the most accessible of novels, especially considering the fact that it is the start of a large fantasy series. Modesitt probably didn't expect to write this many books in the series, but in this first novel he is clearly building something larger than this first novel. The magic system and geopolitical situation in the world of Recluce is still a bit underdeveloped in this novel and a lot of hints the author drops make more sense when the reader has read a few more books in the series. I liked it better the second time I read it. Patience is the word. Give it a go, consider your initial response to what you are reading carefully and in the end The Magic of Recluce will prove a rewarding read.
Title: The Magic of Recluce
Author: L.E. Modesitt Jr.
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 1991