‘The Mongrel Mage’ is the 19th novel in the on-going ‘The Recluse Saga’ but you don’t have to read the other eighteen to follow it. Even so, I imagine that most people who buy this book will have some of the others and at least understand Modesitt’s magical system of order and chaos. Essentially, order is the binding force that holds things together and chaos is free energy. Wounds contain chaos but a healer can drive it out with order, helping to cure. Order can also be used to strengthen wood and some metals. Chaos mages can throw energy bolts and order mages can form shields by strengthening the order in the air around them. They can also form concealments to make themselves and others invisible.
The protagonist is Beltur, a modest young man who doesn’t have much money and is in a subservient position. In his case, he’s apprenticed to his Uncle Kaerlyt, a chaos mage who does some work for the Prefect, in the state of Gallos. There’s another junior chaos mage called Sidon, who’s a little more advanced than Beltur. Chaos mages wear white robes whereas order mages, whose bastion is the Isle of Recluce from which the Saga takes its name, wear black.
Our hero doesn’t have much chaos at his command and actually seems tainted with some order. Only when Jessyla, a knowledgeable young lady, hints that he can use order to direct chaos does he begin to discover his true power. Most mages can use only one or the other and his ability to mingle them leads to some unpleasant folks calling him a mongrel mage. One of his defenders points out that the best dogs are mongrels, a sentiment with which I entirely agree.
Beltur’s adventures begin when his Uncle Kaerlyt is ordered by the Prefect to go to a remote area of grassland where herders and bandits have been raiding and taking women. He takes Beltur and Sidon with him. There follow long pages of horseback riding through dusty lands, stopping at way stations, seeing how the ordinary people live, popping in taverns and generally putting over the background. Modesitt can do this in his sleep by now. I’ve read hundreds of page like this in his books.
His approach is to follow the hero through every day of his life, almost every hour, even when not a lot is happening. Modesitt is not an author who grabs you by the throat on page one and doesn’t let go but, after about a hundred pages, one is quite gripped by the lead character’s troubles.
A sudden crisis means Beltur must flee to the neighbouring state of Spidlar. He’s helped by an order mage called Athaal, who lives in the Spidlarian town of Elparta. His partner is a skilled baker named Meldryn, a man. Not much is made of this except in conversation when Beltur’s girlfriend Jessyla mentions that they are ‘different’. In fact, they are both fine fellows and well respected in the community. They take Beltur in and give him food and shelter while he finds his way and gets some work. All mages are obliged to help out the local cops two days a week for a season so that stretches his powers a bit. Meanwhile, there are rumours that the evil Prefect of Gallos is about to invade Spidlar. The geography is quite specific and there’s a nice map of the world at the front and a more detailed one of the continent of Hamor. Unfortunately, this adventure takes place on the continent of Candar. You can find a detailed map online but one in the book would have been handy.
The career path from humble young man to cop to the military is common for Modesitt heroes but he does it well. Any fans will find most of his usual values here: respect for cops and the army, as well as some knowledge of strategy and tactics; respect for craftsmen and artisans and disdain for rich merchants and especially for their spoilt offspring. This bad attitude to businessmen is very un-American and might have meant blacklisting for Modesitt back in the McCarthy era.
Beltur’s courtship of Jessyla is refreshingly Victorian. He’s delighted when she notices him, thrilled when they hold hands and almost overcome when he finds out she really cares. They don’t get around to kissing by the end of the book but that must be the next step. Modesitt put his old-fashioned values across in all his books and fine values they are, too. Work hard, do good, be nice, respect your elders, show grace under pressure and be thankful for what you have. ‘The Recluce Saga’ is beneficial reading for young minds.
The book is probably a bit too long, as usual. Following the lead character’s every move every day can start to feel like a bit of a plod over five hundred pages especially after you’ve read ten similar books before. Even so, it was worth it in the end. Like Gore Vidal, Modesitt writes thumping great novels to put his ideas across. With Vidal, the books are good, some very good, but it’s more entertaining to read the essays. With Modesitt, the books are also good but, for more fun, read the blog on his website where he comments, sanely, on the pressing issues that challenge the modern United States of America. I check it regularly.
I didn’t want this book but TOR sent it to me direct in luxury hardback format so it seemed churlish not to review it. I enjoyed it, as usual, but it takes up a lot of time and I have other fish to fry. So, dear TOR, send me no more. I’d recommend it to Modesitt fans and it’s worth a look for fantasy readers who haven’t tried him yet. He’s not flashy but he’s solid, meaty fare, as Nathaniel Hawthorne said of Anthony Trollope.
(pub: TOR, 2017. 559 page hardback. Price: $27.99 (US), $38.99 (CAN), £21.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-7653-9468-2)