Mark's Reviews > The Magic Engineer

The Magic Engineer by L.E. Modesitt Jr.
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's review
Feb 13, 2008

really liked it
bookshelves: fantasy
Recommended for: Anyone who has read the first two Recluce novels.
Read in February, 2008

"The Magic Engineer" is the third book in L. E. Modesitt Jr.'s "Recluce" series. It is also the best Recluce novel I've read so far. It's a solid 4 star effort. The novel itself is written in the same familiar present tense style with which Modesitt's readers should be familiar at this point (e.g. "Dorrin rides the horse down the muddy road"). Others have called it "distracting" but I became used to the style early on in my reading.

The Plot

The action in the book takes place after the second book but before the first book. While the second book was about the founding of the nation of Recluce, this third book takes place about 150 years after the death of Recluce's founders, Creslin and Megaera.

The main protagonists are 3 young residents of Recluce named Dorrin, Kadara, and Brede. Dorrin comes from a line of weather wizards and healers, but he wants to be a smith, like Kadara's father. Kadara is a beautiful red haired girl who Dorrin has crushed on his whole life. Brede is a big strapping country boy who has captured Kadara's "interest".

All three of them are to be sent from Recluce on individual quests to "find themselves" in the world. They are being sent away because each of them individually aren't satisfied with their lot in life in Recluce. They aren't being sent away empty-handed, however. They first must recieve training at the Recluce Academy to survive in the outside world. The first book calls this a "dangergeld", but the Recluce society hasn't developed enough at this point in its history to call it that.
The threesome get trained, and then leave Recluce. They can't return for at least a year. Kadara and Brede can't wait to get back to Recluce, but Dorrin sees this as an opportunity to build his new invention...something called a "steam engine".

The Good

This is the best novel in the Recluce series so far. In all his books, Modesitt moves the plot along very well; not too fast and not too slow. This one is no exception. The plot is interesting and it moves forward at a good pace. When a scene in the book starts to become tiresome, it changes to another scene that's interesting. The passages where Dorrin is smithing would be boring if they lasted too long, but they don't. Again, there are no free rides in Modesitt's world. All the characters have to work for a living to survive. Others have called this "dull" but I think it's refreshing.

The main protagonists are memorable and likeable. The relationship between Brede, Kadara, and Dorrin starts out as a love triangle, but changes and develops into something a little more complex as the story progresses. The characters as individuals also grow as they experience life outside Recluce. Modesitt really did well in his writing here. The changes that the characters go through are realistic and cool. I cared for the characters in this book a little more than I have in Modesitt's previous Recluce novels.

The magic system, as usual, is cool and logical. In this novel, Modesitt reveals new aspects of chaos and order magic that were not in the previous two novels. The best part is that the philosophy of Balance between chaos and order in the world of Recluce is examined more closely in this novel. The protagonist Dorrin begins writing down his thoughts on the basis of order and the reader gets a little philosophy about the Balance. This is both cool and natural. If a world existed that had order magic and chaos magic as well as a maintained balance between the two, it would seem to me inevitable that some kind of philosophy would arise dealing with the balance of order and chaos magic. In this novel, we see the beginnings of that philosophy and I found it to be very interesting.

Recluce, as a nation, is portrayed in "The Magic Engineer" as being increasingly isolationist and conservative, much to its detriment. This was interesting to me also. The people who were the most "correct" in their philosophy were the three main protagonists who were being sent away to learn the dubious lesson: "the government of Recluce always knows best". I don't think I'm revealing anything too "spoilerific" when I state that this assertion is proved wrong as a result of the events which take place in the novel. Whether or not Recluce as a nation learns this lesson remains to be seen. They certainly didn't seem to have learned it in the first novel, which takes place chronologically AFTER the action in this novel.

The Not-So-Good

The Order wizards are the "good guys" and the Chaos wizards are again the "bad guys" in this third book. Why morality has to enter into it, I don't know. I do think that the Chaos wizards were a little more morally neutral in the novel, but the methods of succession and the infighting among the Chaos wizards became a little cliche' to me. Also, the fact that the CHAOS wizards are organized enough to have a council as well as a leader (and an empire for that matter) seems to me an oxymoron. I think that a true Chaos wizard would be very isolationist and paranoid of not only Order wizards, but OTHER Chaos wizards as well. The Chaos wizards don't sink to the "Snidely Whiplash" level too badly, but they get awfully close, unfortunately.

The main problem I had with the novel were the ancillary characters. They were a little more distinct than in Modesitt's previous efforts, but there still were too many who were so nondescript that I found myself wondering who they were and what their purpose was. I realize that it's tough to write memorable characters. In real life, we associate people's uniqueness in our minds with their physical appearance and the sound of their voice as well as their personality. In a novel, we just have a character's personality to distinguish them from other characters. There exists an economy of characters in writing that becomes bloated when too many characters get introduced to a reader. It would be tough, if not nearly impossible, for a writer to create distinct personalities and voices for all of them. On the other hand, you don't want some kind of "swiss army character" that performs all of the ancillary action in the novel to support the main characters' actions, because it would be that much harder for a reader to suspend their disbelief. It's a tough balance to maintain, and Modesitt seems to err on the side of Chaos rather than Order in this respect.


Despite the problems listed above, I still think that "The Magic Engineer" is the best Recluce novel in the series so far. The novels keep getting better and the world of Recluce becomes more and more compelling and interesting with each new good read. If you've read the previous two books of Modesitt's "Recluce" series and are ready to give it up, read this one before you make up your mind.
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