My previous reviews of the Recluce saga have been brutally honest when it comes to how L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s writing is disappointing a second time around. So I want to begin this review by praising The Order War for being the best book so far in the series, in terms of both story and writing! After three repetitive, somewhat dull books, Modesitt has finally produced a volume that drew me into the conflict, made me care about the characters, and found a balance between his intriguing magical system and the drama around its usage.
I knew The Order War would be unlike its predecessors almost from the beginning. Justen begins the book as an experienced engineer in Nylan, the city that Dorrin founded back in The Magic Engineer. Unlike Lerris, Creslin, and Dorrin, Justen doesn’t leave his home because he has to “find himself” (although he ends up doing that) or because he’s being sent away. No, Justen leaves as part of a detachment to help an independent country in Candar resist the White Wizards. The detachment fails miserably, and Justen is stranded in a particularly inhospitable part of Candar. He manages to find his way to the Druids of Naclos, where he meets his soul mate and becomes a Gray wizard.
I love that Modesitt begins this book with a healthy amount of action. There’s no tedious travelling through the countryside with the occasional episode dealing with bandits; visits to an inn and the accompanying yet excruciating exchanges that deal with menu selection and counting coppers and golds are few and far between. No, we begin with Justen on Recluce, learn about his family, then join him on the mission to Candar. There are plenty of battle sequences and some political machinations on both sides. Although both smithing and woodworking make cameos, neither craft is the focus of Justen’s spare time. Mostly Modesitt devotes his exposition to Justen’s growing understanding of the Balance between order and chaos.
The Balance has been a common thread running through all of the Recluce books. Sometimes it has been addressed explicitly, particularly by Justen himself in The Magic of Recluce. In other instances, such as Creslin’s experimentation in The Towers of Sunset, it has been there as an afterthought, something that reacts to a perversion of order or chaos. I feel like The Order War serves a very important role in this series, because it ties together all of these ideas about the Balance and closes the circle first opened by The Magic of Recluce.
One of the reasons this series is so compelling is that there are two oppositional groups, one of which uses chaos and the other order. Yet according to the Balance, that is a self-defeating proposition, like global thermonuclear war. Increasing chaos only increases—and concentrates—order, and vice versa. So the more order that the Black Mages concentrate in Recluce, the more chaos foci who appear in Candar. You can’t win; the only way to win is not to play and embrace the Balance, as the Druids do. It might seem like a somewhat trite and obvious conclusion, but Modesitt develops the theme in potent, poignant way.
The Order War still suffers from many of the same flaws as the previous books. As in The Magic of Recluce, where Lerris’ questions were thwarted by Justen’s combative responses, Justen doesn’t always get a straight answer to his inquiries either (so that’s where he learned it!). The final act of the book, with Justen and his brother racing toward Fairhaven in a steam-powered “land engine” of Justen’s design, drags. And of course, there are the White Wizards. Oh, the one-dimensionality of the White Wizards! I eagerly await the books later in the series that, if I recall correctly, look at the events in The Magic Engineer from Cerryl’s point of view, helps to make the wizards of Fairhaven far rounder characters. As it stands, they remain moustache-twirling caricatures, barely worth taking the time to discuss them.
I’m beginning to think about the reading order I would recommend for this series. Like the Chronicles of Narnia, we could have some heated debates about this, drag in the spectre of authorial intent and publishing constraints and that pesky thing about time being linear. If one has the inclination, one could read the series in several orders, of course. But I do know that The Order War is really good and The Towers of Sunset is really bad (in relative Recluce terms), so I’d probably advise new readers to skip the latter and read the former either before or after The Magic Engineer (but probably after).
Had I read this alone, or as the first book to the series, I might have been less charitable. It does not improve my opinion of Modesitt as a writer by much. Yet considered as part of the larger series, this book contributes a lot to the ongoing mythology, and I actually managed to stay interested for most of it. I’m sure that many of those who share my opinions probably didn’t last past book 3, if that (that is when I gave up on Wheel of Time). That’s a shame, because with The Order War, the Recluce Saga is just beginning to get good.