Natural Ordermage by L.E. Modesitt Jr
L.E. Modesitt’s Recluce fantasy series is something that has become so predictable that you read it as much because you know what to expect as for any actual update in the story. If you like it, that’s not a bad thing as long as you understand what you are getting into.
Natural Ordermage represents yet another branch in the story that tells other sides of things that have happened in the past. In this case we get a glimpse into the Empire of Hamor and, as with the other branches, this opens our eyes to the possibility of them being something better than we might have thought before. It’s good filler material.
The real problem with the Recluce series at this point is that it’s pretty much novel-by-number. The Main Character will be some sort of powerful mage who is not part of the establishment and is driven out or who has to find a way to succeed in spite of other societal challenges. He will learn a trade, be good at it, get into trouble with others who feel threatened by him, and will suffer through various adventures/challenges as a result. It’s a nice pattern if you enjoy it, but it’s very predictable. If you are a fan, then it’s still worth reading.
Natural Ordermage is pretty much par for the course. Modesitt is very good at writing this series and this book is similar to Fall of Angels and The White Order in that it gives us a chance to look at new sides of the story. Natural Ordermage is best bought in paperback because it isn’t groundbreaking enough to merit the cost of a hardback.
I admit to picking up Natural Ordermage with some trepidation. My last review of a Modesitt book was pretty harsh, relegating his recent work to the shampoo-rinse-repeat bin of been-writing-that-series-too-long where the author starts telling the same story with the same character again and again and again. But for some reason, foolish optimism perhaps, I decided to give him another shot when I saw his new Recluce novel (while I thought these too had gotten stale, my fiercest criticism dealt with his Corean series).
I’ll have to say I was pleasantly surprised, though too many of his tendencies/tics or whatever you’d like to call them still were noticeable. The book is certainly a fast and enjoyable read, if not a particularly thrilling or thought-provoking one. Like much of Modesitt’s work, the writing is smooth and the reading almost effortless. The pace moves along quite quickly for the most part, though sometimes this is more flaw than strength. The for the most part, as in many of his novels, often falls down on the very detailed descriptions of eating, which I’ve come to expect with a sense of resignation.
The book follows Rahl, a scrivener with a mixed ability with order who is exiled from Nylan to Hamor where his abilities grow in fits and starts. Meanwhile, he gets embroiled in a conspiracy that ends with him having to start from scratch once again, from an even worse beginning.
One positive beyond those already mentioned is that Rahl is a somewhat unusual character for Modesitt. One that is many times unlikeable and often a bit blundering, a welcome change from his by now stock character — the quietly competent and efficient man who only gets more so. Another positive is the view into Hamor, a land that we haven’t heard/seen much of in the earlier dozen or so Recluce novels.
One problem is that while Rahl is a bit of a change, the plot isn’t all that different. A mage unsure of his abilities slowly learns how to use/control them and slowly fights his way up whatever ladder of promotion there is, while facing the inevitable corrupt boss. Along the way, he’ll overhear many snippets of useful conversation via his order-senses and break far too many wrists of bad guys (rather than killing them). I have nothing against the idea of proportional violence and an ethical desire to not kill if unnecessary, but if I read one more time how Rahl’s truncheon “cracked” down on “x’s wrist” I might have broken my own two wrists so I could no longer hold the book and thus avoid the next time that event happened (usually in about 20-30 pages). Because the plot isn’t so different, and because anyone coming to Natural Ordermage is bound to have read earlier Recluce novels, it is a bit predictable. And one does have a sense, despite the many bad things that happen to Rahl, that things still happen a bit too easily or quickly. I know that seems contradictory, but it’s how it feels, perhaps because while the bad things do occur, the setbacks are always minor in terms of time and pages to recover from them.
So where does Natural Ordermage stand at the end? Anyone who has seen my reviews knows I usually break down series books into four categories. The first for those outstanding books (usually early ones) that captivated and drew in readers thus ensuring a continuation of the series (sometimes a pyrrhic victory); the second category is for those books in the series that don’t reach that height but are good in their own right and still sweep you along; the third category for those books that are merely serviceable — moving along the big plot or characters so they live (well, some) to be written about another day but doing so in perfunctory, almost lifeless fashion, lacking spark and originality; and the fourth category for those books spit out by the author (or some relative who has gotten Power of Character or whatever legal designation is
needed) with the evil knowledge that the pages could be filled with “All work and no play makes Jack… ” and the series’ long-suffering yet ever-hopeful fans would still buy the book. Natural Ordermage falls somewhere between that third and second category. It’s absolutely better than serviceable, but I can’t really call it good or sweeping or compelling. It’s enjoyable, it’s pleasant. It’s your amiable neighbor that your mom suggests hanging out with when none of your real friends are around (if you’re, you know, ten), and you don’t mind, but not for too many days in a row. It’s the best Recluce book in a while, but that might be damning a bit with faint praise.
Perhaps it bodes better things in the future. At the least, it’s enjoyable enough that I’ll pick up its sequel when it comes (c’mon — you knew it was coming).
Yep, which is why I'm willing to give a sequel a shot
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