I remembered reading the Saga of Recluce books when I was in high school, and I remembered them setting my teeth on edge. I decided to pick up The Magic of Recluce again just to see how it was, and wow, it hasn’t aged well, nor was I ready for what I found. I had remembered that there was something about gender roles, and I didn’t like the moral simplicity, but the details were, well, bad.
First off, the Saga of Recluce books have absolutely beautiful descriptions of tradework. Probably the thing I appreciate the most about them is the detail in describing how a woodworker positions inlays, or a blacksmith forms and considers metalworking. I also find the system of magic interesting–certainly different from other common models; the idea of an Order/Chaos balance that seems to approach the level of fundamental particles is certainly interesting, and gives a solid basis as to how magic works in this story universe. Unfortunately, that’s sort of where the positive comments I have about the Saga end, so it’s time to unpack the problems with a series of tales about this island nation and its dedication to clean kitchens and very carefully inlaid wood.
Dualities and Magic
Okay, probably first and foremost, since it’s the second word and first noun in the title of the first book, let’s talk about this magic system. Modesitt decided that he’d make his world’s magic based on Order versus Chaos, and decided that he’d associate Order with Black, and Chaos with White–with the reasonable explanation that white, as the amalgamation of all colors of light, is chaotic, while black, the absence of color and highly uniform, is orderly. This is all quite sensible, and is sort of fascinating–but at the same time, he also assigned a value judgement to these two: Chaos wizards are almost always greedy, brutal, and evil, while Order mages largely are interested in improving their surroundings–generally “good”.
The problem with this magic system is exactly that while the text repeatedly states that Order and Chaos are not aligned with Good and Evil, there is a very strong textual association–and authorial association–with those pairs. Modesitt’s attempts to add depth to this mostly come from the interjections of Justen, whose voice seems to be mostly authorial, at least in the first book. What we see in characters is mostly just see the very human intents of the magisters of Recluce; on the other hand, we see outright evil actions from Chaos wizards. Even when he claims that it’s not that simple, he still manages to associate characters almost explicitly along Good/Evil, Order/Chaos lines. Not to mention–the series was groundbreaking because black was the color of good?
Lastly, there’s an initially interesting concept of chaos as sickness, order as health–which would be really fascinating if it weren’t for the moralizing that gets added to it later in the story; since Chaos is also morally aligned with Evil, we end up seeing characters afflicted with Chaos acting in evil manners.
Gender roles and the Legend
Well, by the time of the first book, what exactly the Legend was seems to have either been twisted or faded with time–which, admittedly, is a nice touch–but it leads to some absolutely fascinating statements about, well everything to do with gender norms and relationships. In another stroke of being forward-thinking, we get to see an oppressive matriarchal society–based on the idea that men are simply incompetent (with a bonus of “if a man stays, off with his balls”? We don’t get a clear statement of that one, but the “well, you know what’ll happen if you stay” combined with a shudder tells enough). By the time of the first book, that idea has subsided and been replaced with “we believe that men and women are different, and don’t have the same abilities” which is sort of a far cry from the original–but looks awfully traditionally patriarchal. Either way, it feels like going “but what if the same, only different” for the sole purpose of claiming to be forward-thinking.
Men and their Virtue
In this first book, there’s a strong focus on Lerris and his virtue. Oh, he can’t possibly have sex with a woman, he’d put her at risk. This same story gets repeated over and over again, but it just gets kinda … old. Additionally, we get the intimation that liking sex a lot is associated with Chaos, which is a rather strong moral statement, once again on an Order/Chaos basis.
Then, we get multiple doses of homophobia! In the first book, there’s an intimation that Lerris is gay, when he’s uninterested in a sex worker who apparently has some magic on her; Lerris violently rejects the suggestion, in a manner that really only belongs in a homophobic society. In the second book, we see yet more homophobia, in fact it’s used to advance the plot! Now, intimation of homosexuality is a reason to fight to at least first blood, if not death. Really excellent that the matriarchal society still has the idea that it’s a major affront for a man to act in a feminine manner, even though roles were switched!
Finally here, wow, rape sure is treated as a minor issue! Excellent, very progressive and forward-looking.
I’m mostly just disappointed that I read so many of these books back in the day. They were hot garbage then and they haven’t really aged well at all; there’s more interesting stories, out there now. Read more innovative fantasy, honestly.