Review of The Magic Engineer by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
The Magic Engineer
by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
I am "on a mission", if you will, to re-read the Recluce saga in order, because I most of the first eleven books when I was younger and then lost touch with the series, and now I'm "reconnecting with my fantasy roots". Note, however, that this is one series where the order—at least at first—doesn't matter all that much. One can pick up any of the first three books and feel equally comfortable reading the other two afterward. L.E. Modesitt, Jr. hops around the chronology of his universe; the first book, The Magic of Recluce, is set after the second and third books. The elapsed time is on the order of centuries, however, allowing for enough distance that events from previous books are always distant memories and legends. Indeed, one could make the argument that The Magic Engineer is a better starting point for newcomers than The Magic of Recluce.
Both of these books are extremely similar, so if you are familiar with Modesitt and are inexplicably hoping for something new … then you aren't very familiar with Modesitt. Replace "Dorrin" with "Lerris" and "smithing" with "woodworking", and you almost have a copy of The Magic of Recluce. I'm being tongue-in-cheek here; there are significant differences between the two—the external conflict in The Magic Engineer is a lot more developed, as are Dorrin's friendships—but the substance remains the same: a rebellious youth gets exiled from orderly Recluce only to take up a craft and become an ordermaster. In so doing, he upsets various people who are steeped in chaos, and conflict ensues. Oh, and every single thing gets accounted for. Want to buy something? Modesitt is going to make you haggle down to the last copper. Want to have a meal? Modesitt is going to list the entire menu and then force you to listen to the character deliberate over how to be the most frugal. Modesitt's scrupulousness when it comes to the logistics of his world is one of the reasons he stands out as a fantasy writer, but it definitely begins to grate after a while.
I could go on about how this book disappoints me in all the same ways the previous two books do, especially considering what an impression this series made on me when I was younger. After struggling with how to express what I dislike about these books, however, I've had an epiphany about why I dislike them: they remind me of how I wrote when I made my first attempts at writing fantasy. Indeed, I suspect that these books served as unconscious templates for a lot of what I wrote. This might be a weird remark, but I think the catalyst for this revelation is the names. There is just something about the names in the Recluce saga that jar me and remind me of my own first attempts in that area. I don't mentally "sound out" most of the words when reading a book to myself, but I do sound out names in my head. I don't know why; maybe I worry that if I am ever magically transported into the book I'll need to know how to pronounce everyone's name to prove I'm not some kind of demon. What? It could happen. But I digress. The names sound weird; they don't often come easily off my tongue. And there are many of them, because Modesitt likes to name his characters, even the most minor ones who show up for a page and then get killed off because they couldn't afford the coin for redberry at the next inn.
I don't want to go as far as to say that Modesitt writes like a 15-year-old. These books are still much better than anything I managed to produce. Nevertheless, the final product feels quite different from most of the other fantasy fare I gluttonously consume. Modesitt, much like his characters, is a very technical writer. His books are not formulaic, but they still read as if they were crafted from smaller components. Everything, from the logistics of living to the order/chaos magic system is logical and carefully explained. When a writer does this, the result is exactly something like The Magic Engineer: nearly flawless in its technical execution but lacking in that subtle essence that allows me to connect to it on an emotional level. (I say nearly flawless because there is a bewildering editing oversight. Early in the book, some dialogue between Dorrin and his father gets repeated verbatim in a subsequent conversation. It's very odd.) Intellectually, I grasped everything about Dorrin's conflicts, about the moral conundrum of using order as a tool for force and violence in defence against chaos, about having to protect the people of Diev even though they have come to fear him for his powers. Emotionally, however, I had a hard time caring for Dorrin, for Brede, or for Kadara.
With most books, one knows at the beginning that the protagonist is going to survive. In rare cases, that doesn't happen, although it is usually foreshadowed. So I think it's safe and non-spoiling to mention that, yes, Dorrin doesn't die (sorry if that truly spoils your experience). Somehow though, all those other books whose protagonists survive manage to make me feel that the character's struggle is worth something. The protagonist might survive, but it's always at some cost; there is always another personal sacrifice or loss that drives the resolution. This seems to be absent from The Magic Engineer, and it's related to the very careful and technical way the book seems to have been written. Rather than surviving because he earns it, Dorrin survives only because it has been predestined from the story's beginning. As a result, Dorrin and all the rest of the characters lack free will and become mere mouthpieces for Modesitt's exposition of his order/chaos system.
I know: it's ridiculous to talk about fictional characters having free will! (Or is it?) Yet this seems like the best way to express my criticism: in a truly fulfilling story, that author must convince the reader that the characters have volition. Modesitt is very careful to ensure that his characters' actions seem to follow logically from their motives, but there's something missing, something just a little bit off. Take the White Wizards, for instance. We get brief, snippet-like chapters that give us a glimpse into their machinations—and these chapters are by far the worst parts of The Magic Engineer, just as they were in The Towers of Sunset. The White Wizards are one-dimensional and Evil. They want to dominate and destroy. Oh, and they pontificate about that to each other, always pointing out each other's actions. (It actually feels like the White Wizards are playing a big game of "I see what you did there" where if one does not explain the other person's schemes to that person, one has failed and will be incinerated.)
The same problem afflicts the other chapters, though perhaps to a lesser degree. Here's an example from very early in the book.
He takes a sip of the redberry, warmer than he prefers. "If it's not intruding … what's your family like?"
She finishes crunching a mixture of celery and sliced fennel before answering. "My father is a trader in wools. My mother was a singer from Suthya. I don't have any brothers or sisters yet."
Dorrin frowns. The words imply that her mother is dead, and that her father has another wife who may yet have children.
I particularly love the phrase "the words imply". Not only is Modesitt spelling it out for us, but he is almost condescending about it, as if he is worried that we are going to miss this subtlety if he does not do his best to un-subtleify it. (And it's not like the person with whom Dorrin is speaking is a major character or anything. This has no effect on the rest of the plot.)
The Magic Engineer has not changed my opinion of the Recluce saga. With each book in the series that I re-read, however, I am gaining a new perspective on that opinion and better understanding it. I wish that opinion could be higher, because this series means a lot to me. Unfortunately, despite that significance and the link it provides to my past, I cannot put the Recluce saga among my favourites.