Recluce Tales (The Recluse Saga book 19) by L.E. Modesitt, Jr (book review).

‘Recluce Tales’ is a book of twenty short stories and one essay set in the world of Modesitt’s best-selling ‘Recluce Saga. The essay and three of the stories, ‘Sisters Of Sarronyn, Sisters Of Westwind’, ‘The Stranger’ and ‘Black Ordermage’ have appeared before. There are seventeen new ones here. Some of the stories seem to have been prompted by readers’ queries about particular characters, some by Modesitt’s own whims.

The book opens with the essay ‘Behind The Magic Of Recluce’ which explains the principles of the enchantment used. The order and chaos of Recluce are essentially a fantastical twist on atomic theory with chaos being the energy and order the solid force that binds it together. Both need to be in balance. When they get out of kilter the world experiences a large and uncomfortable ‘correction’, rather like the free market after the bankers have had their jollies for a decade or so. Modesitt started the saga because he thought that the secondary worlds in fantasy lacked a sense of political and economic realism. To be fair, most Hobbit lovers probably weren’t terribly worried about that but, by injecting it, he’s given the genre another level of interest.

The stories are presented in chronological order, which the saga in novels isn’t as it skips about all over the place. The first story, ‘The Vice Marshal’s Trial’, was interesting as it establishes that some of the humans on the world of Recluce came from a universe with Science Fiction technology, as we understand it, of starships and so forth. Their drives have been fused to slag in the freak ‘translation’ that bought them to this world. Vice Marshal Kiedral Daloren sets off to find an exploration party which vanished in the Great Forest while trying to build a road. The forest has trees that can grow ten years’ worth in three months. Kiedral makes a start at understanding the strange laws of physics that apply in this new world.

Both Kiedral and the forest reappear in ‘The Forest Girl’, one Alyiakal is being trained in arms by his father, a major in the Mirror Lancers. The forest is held at bay by salted earth but he meets a dark-haired girl named Adayal, who shows him it isn’t so terrible.

In ‘The Choice’, we meet Toziel, son of the Dowager Empress of Cyador, who tells him he has no power in chaos or order and so must choose his consort carefully. ‘Trust the book’, she says. The book is ‘Meditations Upon The Land Of Light’ by Kiedral Daloren, Vice-Marshal, Anglorian Unity. The Saga of Recluce covers 1800 years of history and characters have often achieved legendary status a few centuries after their death.

Toziel chooses well but Cyador falls eventually. Fortunately, the Empress, Lady Mairena of Light and Healing, sees it coming. She can’t tell her stubborn husband and can’t plan too much for a vision that might not come true but she does manage to get a few ships prepared so that when disaster strikes, she can escape with her son the heir, his sister, some loot and a force of soldiers. A nice bit of background to the novels ‘Cyador‘s Heirs’ and ‘Heritage Of Cyador’.

It has often struck me that old western plots can be adapted to fantasy worlds as both genres incline to clear cut good and bad guys in lawless lands. ‘The Stranger’ is a western. Frankyr and his Ma are sheepherders, far from town, and when a black-garbed man rides up offering coppers for room and board they take him in. Then four bad guys show up to kill him. Apparently, a supplement to the novel ‘Fall Of Angels’, this is pretty darn good.

So is ’Worth’, later in the book, when lean, sword-wielding Wrynn shows up in Llyssen, Southwind. She’s a blade for hire but there ain’t much call for that round these here parts so she ends up doing carpentry for the hostelry. The local sheriff, sorry Patroller, is wary of her but won’t worry as long as she breaks no laws. She’s a woman, too. There’s a strong feminist streak in Modesitt’s writing with the men not infrequently behaving like fools until corrected by the saner sex. I enjoyed both these yarns but, hell, I like westerns.

John Wayne did pretty darn good at school and was lined up for a scholarship. Big men are often taken for fools. I cite Cassius Barca Samuels for this, a six foot four black man who was fighting a fire on the flight deck of a navy ship in the Viet Nam War when the smoke cleared and he was on a completely different ship. Instinctively, he picks up a staff and fights off the attacking force. He ends up imprisoned with a lady called Kytrona, who has to teach him both the local lingo and order skills if they are to have any hope of escape. His ‘translation‘ to the world of Recluce was a bit odd but fantasy writers have used wardrobes, mirrors, caves and railway stations to get there so we won‘t quibble. ‘Black Ordermage’ was one of the best in the book.

‘Order! Order!’ Like a stern judge, that’s the battle cry on the Isle of Recluce, sanctuary of the men in black and women, too. Modesitt frequently states that readers who mistake order for good are making an error and the balance is what counts. Even so, in every tale, he gives away his preference for keeping things tidy. Craftsmen are greatly respected. Creslin is esteemed for his stonework in ‘Sisters Of Sarronyn, Sisters Of Westwind’ in which early days on the black isle are seen through the eyes of a minor character. ‘Artisan – Four Portraits And A Miniature’ displays similar sympathies, as does ‘Brass And Lacquer’, the story of a shop girl who learns the price of deceit. Modesitt’s heroes are invariably efficient, hard working, frugal, prudent and neat. Moreover, they are part of organised society and have superiors. They fit into a social order. Nowhere do you get the impression that barbarism is the natural state of mankind, as Robert E. Howard once opined.

As a fan of both short stories and of L.E. Modesitt, Jr., I was curious to know how he would perform at lesser length. He usually writes stonking great novels of five hundred pages. It was also a matter of interest whether or not ‘Recluce Tales’ would make sense to someone not so familiar with ‘The Saga Of Recluce’. I’ve read only a few of the seventeen or so books in that epic. I am happy to report that Modesitt does good shorts but must say I think some familiarity with Recluce is essential. Don’t treat this as an introduction to the series. Graham Greene called short stories ‘chips from the novelist’s block’ or something like it (I can‘t find the exact quote anywhere). These tales are chips from particular blocks and, if you know the main story, the chips make more sense. Fans of Recluce will love it, I think. Others might have a read of the novels and the author recommends starting with ‘The Magic Of Recluce’.

Eamonn Murphy

February 2017

(pub: TOR/Forge. 476 page small hardback. Price: $27.99 (US), $38.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-8618-2)

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