Thursday, 25 January 2018

The Saga of Recluce: A Few Remarks

I referenced L. E. Modesitt Jr.'s Saga of Recluce in a post a few weeks ago. Thought I'd say a little about this - the 'schedule' is overdue for something airy.

What is it? A series of fantasy books, set in the same world. The plots generally operate along the same formula, involving a young man, with magical abilities, cast away from his home, making a life for himself, falling in love, rising against an enemy, coming into his own. They've been pithily called fantastical Horatio Alger novels. That's perhaps not quite fair, but they 'making a life for one's self' segment always seems quite detailed. The magicians of the tale nearly all possess some skill or handicraft that supports them when they aren't doing magic (no Hogwarts for these folk - mostly). It's quite prominent, really - and I should argue that it is part of the charm. (A bit like literary third-person Minecraft - a similar set of joys, I mean to say.)

The setting is a world of several continents; Recluce is a large island of one such continent. Some people of this world can manipulate the powers of Order and Chaos - at some cost to themselves. The two powers clash not infrequently - Recluce is dominated by Order-Mages. This leads to a society that does not accept much in the way of disruption, and so those that cannot accept their place go out into a wider society, with all the powers of chaos potentially arrayed against you - especially if you are a nascent Order-Mage. An orderly society seems almost stiflingly wholesome and virtuous (order mages experience pain when telling lies), rather than dictatorial, feeding into that Horatio Alger current again. Look it up on Wikipedia or other suitable sources for something more in depth..

It's all fine enough stuff. The world is well-observed (though one gets tired of the observation that the chops in a rural tavern, the 'luxury item on the menu', have been reheated several times and probably aren't that much good). Technology levels increase as the series goes on, to the point of black powder and steam engines intruding onto a previously somewhat-Medieval world.

But throughout the series, especially in the Order-based societies, women have a roughly equal standing (deliberately contrasted with Chaos-based) to men - in terms of dress, social role and so forth. Not that one gets many female protagonists - the whole series has a fairly masculine tone, I might assert - war, social success, hard work and craftsmanship all have a place.

[Yes, those aren't perhaps inherently masculine. But they have that link.]

Not only this, but there's an emphasis on washing ones' hands, on relatively polite discourse, on thrift and prudence that turn the mind more to a 19th Century American West rural community - baked and worked goods, respectful and mannered discourse, a somewhat sceptical outlook on the world (religion does exist, but rarely intrudes into the life of the protagonists - though semi-religious cultural influences have part to play).

Is this another example of an off-the-shelf fantasy world (complete with well-thought out system of magic?). Well, it's pretty close, I suppose. Not that that's always bad. But there's a few things that crop up that change that in my mind. Which probably constitute Spoilers of some kind. See after the picture break.

Related image
Cover of the first book.







































So, as of the sixth book (said books rarely follow on directly from one another), we get confirmation of what had been hinted at previously. The Order and Chaos users of the world of Recluce are crashed astronauts, hurled from crashed spaceships across time and space - and perhaps dimensions. In the sixth, Fall of Angels, we get a Robinson Crusoe-esque survival story, about building a new state among hostile pseudo-medieval kingdom with a starship crew of -mostly- 22nd Century women. Part of the joy of this is the craftsmanship-pioneer-building stuff elements, but a new element trumps it.

This element I take to be (roughly) the problem of maintaining a (for want of a better term) modern, liberal world view or values when the technological levels and cultural capital doesn't quite support this.

What do we get? Semi-military dictators, the foundation of female-dominated cultures as a counterweight to the rest of the world (Westwind men don't bear arms and are generally expected to sit there are be beautiful), the foundation of religions on manipulative grounds, breeding programmes for mages able to replicate some facets of lost technology. This isn't quite the half of it, in some ways.

This works into and contrasts the general third-act experience of the earlier, formulaic, books: the protagonist makes a home for themselves and their loved ones - but are forced by circumstances into action. Seeing as our protagonists are generally mages, said action is frequently full of mass slaughter, horrifying even to veteran soldiers. The efficiency of magical warfare versus drawn-out wars of attrition is frequently addressed; short term horror versus long-term evil. Rarely do our protagonists escape unscathed; rarely are they regarded as spotless paragons by their societies - gaining status by the raw fact of power rather than the acclaim of their peers. It's not altogether bleak - peace and all its attendant gifts can be attained. But it is not easy.

Having a formula means it can be changed up - that's half the fun of it. We get to see fully fledged military stories, life as a Chaos wizard (hitherto frequently straight villains), life on continents outside Recluce and Candar - and in the first ancient astronaut civilisation, Cyador, that maintained future-tech levels for a few generations. It takes a solid pseudo-fantasy base and works it through a little.

All this, as I said last time, is part of the charm of the Qryth. A little far from full-on science fantasy - but with a wonderful set of ideas to play with. There's a lot of stuff to dig into, and if these aren't the greatest of books, they're certainly good enough for their purposes - and you might find a little more.

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