It's been almost two years since I re-read The Magic of Recluce. I consider the Recluce saga among the "formative fantasy series" of my youth. I associate the word "Recluce" with memories of being curled up in a massive armchair in the living room, rain streaming down the windows outside, cradling a massive 600- or 800-page hardcover book in my hands. That was the life.
With The Towers of Sunset, Modesitt returns to the Recluce saga in prequel form: this is the founding of Recluce by Creslin and his somewhat-reluctant partner, Megaera. Creslin is the son of the Marshall of Westwind; Megaera is the sister of the Tyrant of Sarronnyn. Both Westwind and Sarronnyn are western countries of Candar that subscribe to the Legend, which is essentially a garbled creation myth that provides the basis for their matriarchical societies. The Marshall bucked tradition by allowing Creslin to train with the female guards of Westwind, who are among the best in the world. Meanwhile, Megaera is a White witch, a chaos mage, and her sister has had her bound in iron chains since she came of age. Oh, and she's "life-linked" to Creslin, so she feels what he feels and dies if he dies. You can guess how much she loves that.
The plot of The Towers of Sunset has many similarities to that of The Magic of Recluce, which will come as no surprise if you are familiar with Modesitt's writing. Just as Lerris is dispatched to Candar for ulterior reasons, Creslin too is manipulated by the Marshall, the Tyrant, and even the White Wizards of Fairhaven to fulfil his "destiny", which is the founding of an order-based haven on Recluce. Instead of the Grey mage Justen for the role model/wise mentor figure, we have Klerris, a Black mage. Notably, Creslin does not have a trade; he is a soldier and a musician seems to try his hand at pretty much everything.
Creslin's self-enforced versatility is one of the reasons I didn't like this book. I should probably mention that, unlike The Magic of Recluce, I don't think I've read this one before. I would remember being this annoyed. Self-righteous male protagonists bother in fantasy books. You know the type I mean: they bludgeon their way through the plot like a bulldozer, swiping aside any resistance with the fateful words, "I don't have any choice." It's one of the reasons I skewered Richard and the Sword of Truth series. Creslin is not nearly so extreme, fortunately; yet the last half of the book seems to consist of him whining that his choices come down to "let everyone starve" or "mount an increasingly destructive series of order-based gambits to turn Recluce into a nation at the expense of other countries". Indeed, much like my reservations about the end of The Ringworld Engineers, I don't think I can condone the way Modesitt glosses over the morality of Creslin's actions. In altering the weather patterns to bring more rain to Recluce, he causes floods and droughts elsewhere. We see these results, but we never really see Creslin called to account for them, except for the toll his use of order in the service of destruction takes on his body (blindness), which I would argue is not sufficient here. Creslin is a war criminal!
Ironically, my feelings were the opposite for the first half of the book: I was annoyed with Megaera and thought Creslin's feelings were justified. She was contradictory and vague toward him no matter how he treated her. Eventually, however, I came to see his actions from her point of view. They're both stupid and probably deserve each other, but on balance I'll have to give the epic award for stupidity to Creslin, for essentially forcing himself upon Megaera by imposing another life-link on them. She is already linked to him, so he feels that he should make the link reciprocal; he'll feel what she feels. But he does this without even asking her permission, which is … rape. It doesn't matter that "it was going to happen eventually" as a result of her life-link and their mutual order/chaos abilities. The squee factor is definitely there.
When Creslin is not forcing his way into the thoughts of his wife or destroying weather patterns for his own gain, he's usually doing something boring, like guarding a trader caravan or singing in a tavern. I am exaggerating, of course, but I want to emphasize how very workaday the Recluce saga seems to be when it comes to adventures. Creslin is just as obsessed with counting coppers and recounting to us the exact meals he orders at inns as Lerris was; once again, Modesitt focuses a lot on the logistics of life. Alone, this might be enough to dissuade some people from reading the book but doesn't particularly bother me. Unfortunately, The Towers of Sunset also seems to miss a lot of dramatic notes. Creslin undergoes a few very important trials, including his escape from the Westwind escort, his confrontation in Fairhaven, and his subsequent recovery of his memory and escape from the road crew. Maybe it's my fault for reading at a baseball game, but the tone and urgency of the writing doesn't always adjust to match the intensity of these moments. Altogether the result is a somewhat flat, albeit very evenly-paced, story.
There is nothing truly unique or exciting about The Towers of Sunset to make it stand out. As usual, Modesitt's chaos-order magic system is fun and interesting and stifled by the heavy-handed exposition. The bad guys (in this case, the White Wizards) get their own short chapters of dialogue in which they cackle about their latest gambit to unseat Creslin from Recluce. Modesitt does get two things very right: the epic scale, with Creslin's manipulation of the winds and the destruction of multiple fleets of ships and enemy soldiers; and the toll this takes on Creslin's body. That was a cool price to extract for his unmitigated use of order at the service of destruction. Unfortunately, these two positives do not sufficiently compensate for the dull or even unsavoury parts of this book. It's not a bad book, and to his credit Modesitt attempts to explore issues of gender politics, from his creation of the Legend to the relative roles that Megaera and Creslin play in ruling Recluce. Nevertheless, unless you are on a mission to read the complete saga of Recluce like I am, you might want to skip this one.