by L. E. Modesitt, published by Tor Books.
Since I ranted about the Da Vinci Code in a EUOLogy a few weeks ago, I figured that I should balance out my ponderings by talking about a book I actually liked. Fortunately, I just happened to have one handy
I read my first Modesitt book back in the early nineties, right around the same time Robert Jordan was getting popular. My first thought, upon seeing The Magic of Recluse, was that Modesitt looked like a Jordan clone. He had the same cover artist, same publisher, and same general “feel.” I read the book, and found it interesting, but wasn’t overwhelmed.
During the next ten years, however, I grew increasingly impressed with Modesitt as a writer. He took a different route from Jordan—instead of letting his series become increasingly bloated, he followed a more Anne McCaffery series paradigm. While there are some fifteen Recluce books out now, many of them are stand-alones, and those that have continuing characters are formed into sub-series set within the world. Modesitt has written consistently and professionally, proving to his readers that he deserves their trust.
Wellspring is the latest in the Recluce series. It takes place some number of years after the last sub-series, and stands completely on its own, not requiring any previous—or further—reading in the world to enjoy. The book represents one of the directions I think that fantasy should go in the future. It isn’t about the end of the world or a traditional quest—it is the story of a person, a single viewpoint character, struggling to make his way in a fully-realized fantasy world.
This character—Kharl—shares some characteristics with a traditional fantasy hero. He begins the story relatively low in the social hierarchy. (He’s a cooper.) He has latent magical abilities that he doesn’t realize, and the progression of the story will require him to leave his comfortable home in search of who he truly is. At the same time, however, he is a very original character for a fantasy story. Not a young man by any means, Kharl is presented as a simple family man. His search to “find himself” feels far less like a quest than it does a realistic presentation of a man cast out of house and home, trying to make his way as best he can and deal with events that threaten to completely overwhelm him.
One of Modesitt’s strengths is the detail he includes in his writing. He knows this world, and he gives us the sense that he also knows what it is like to be a cooper. This is the kind of book that could really only have been written following several large series set in the same setting, for while it doesn’t seem to really advance any major world-based issues (except, perhaps, for some sections at the very end) it does draw upon a world that has been developed and expanded over a decade’s time.
The book isn’t groundbreaking, and it does have a few problems. This book presents somewhat simplified view of good and evil—order mages are good, chaos mages are bad. Other Recluse books are far more interesting in the way that they deal with good/evil. In this book, however, anything that is destructive—from a person with an angry temperament, to weapon that has a flaw in its forging—emanates chaos to those who can see it. This sense is exacerbated by Kharl’s simple, ‘honest craftsman’ temperament. Though he struggles with his purpose and his situation, Kharl is a remarkably good man who just doesn’t have to bother with moral struggles. Everything is very black and white (though, of course, in Recluce black means Order and white means Chaos.)
The book does tend to meander a bit, without a clear sense of purpose, though in this particular case I’m willing to forgive this as a quirk rather than a detraction. The wandering plot adds to the feel of Kharl’s struggle. Modesitt’s writing is very good on the paragraph-by-paragraph level, and that makes the short chapters move very quickly and interestingly. I do think the book could have been served by a 10-15% cut, as some of the sections felt even more unconnected than the rest. However, it was a good read overall, and it was nice to enjoy something that was simply a product of a master writer telling a fine story.