Reading L. E. Modesitt, jr.'s Recluce Tales, a new collection of short stories set in the Recluce universe, was a veritable trip back down memory lane for me. Looking back, I realized that other than Katherine Kurtz's Deryni sequence, the Recluce saga is the fantasy series I've been reading for the longest time. Indeed, I originally bought paperbacks of both The Magic of Recluce and The Towers of the Sunset circa 1992 or 1993. It doesn't make me any younger, that goes without saying. But it's also a testament to just how distinctive and remarkable this series remained for more than two decades.
Once The Death of Chaos was published, Modesitt maintained that no subsequent Recluce book would ever focus on future events. Hence, every new title took place at various periods in the past of the Recluce timeline, each one further fleshing out the already rich historical tapestry which forms the backdrop of this bestselling saga. In and of itself, Recluce Tales offers fans something quite special. Within the pages of a single book, readers are brought back in time and revisit various important eras that have shaped the universe over the course of about two millennia. Even better, two short stories even take us beyond the series' ending.
Here's the blurb:
For over a thousand years, Order and Chaos have molded the island of Recluce. The Saga of Recluce chronicles the history of this world through eighteen books, L. E. Modesitt, Jr.'s most expansive and bestselling fantasy series. Recluce Tales: Stories from the World of Recluce collects seventeen new short stories and four popular reprints spanning the thousand-year history of Recluce. First-time readers will gain a glimpse of the fascinating world and its complex magic system, while longtime readers of the series will be treated to glimpses into the history of the world. Modesitt's essay “Behind the ‘Magic’ of Recluce” gives insight into his thoughts on developing the magical system that rules the Island of Recluce and its surrounding lands, while “The Vice Marshal's Trial” takes the reader back to the first colonists on Recluce. Old favorites “Black Ordermage” and “The Stranger” stand side-by-side with thrilling new stories.
Recluce Tales is comprised of seventeen new short fiction pieces, three reprinted short stories (One of them first published in Speculative Horizons, a short anthology I edited for Subterranean Press a few years back), plus one essay elaborating on how the magical system and the series were born. The tales are presented in chronological order, which works perfectly. I must point out that this collection is not a good jumping point for new readers. For them, each story would be little more than vignettes and wouldn't make a whole lot of sense without context. This book is meant to be cherished by long-time fans who have always wanted more. Modesitt delivers on basically all fronts, filling in the blanks in the Recluce chronology with several pieces that will resonate with readers and add new layers to what has always been a complex saga.
Personally, I've always had a preference for the distant past of the Recluce universe. It's no surprise then that the short stories I enjoyed the most were those occurring many years prior to the events of The Magic of Recluce and The Death of Chaos. Modesitt immediately had me, hook, bait, and sinker, with the very first piece, "The Vice Marshal's Trials." It takes place prior to the founding of Cyador. "Madness?" occurs during the early history of Lydiar and "The Forest Girl" features Alyiakal before he became a legendary historical figure. "The Choice" elaborates on the history of the Emperor and his consort from Magi'i of Cyador and Scion of Cyador. "The Most Successful Merchant" is an unlikely love story that was unexpectedly interesting.
"Heritage" is one of the best pieces in this collection and recounts the destruction of Cyador through the eyes of the clairvoyant Empress Mairena. This one works as a prequel for Cyador's Heir and Heritage of Cyador. It was fun to reread "The Stanger" because I'm the one who edited it and first put it in print in 2010. It features a protagonist that disappeared before the end of Fall of Angels and explains how the expensive black wool came to be. "Songs past, Songs for those to come" features a well-known druid and how his machinations will have great repercussions in the years to come. "Sisters of Sarronnyn; Sisters of Westwind" is the very first Recluce short story Modesitt ever wrote and takes us back to the events chronicled in The Towers of the Sunset. Not only is it one of the best short fiction pieces in Recluce Tales, but it was an amazing treat to revisit Creslin and Megaera around the time of the birth of Recluce. These four stories are the most powerful found in this book and are worth the cover price on their own.
What comes next takes place closer and closer to the "present" of the Recluce timeline and doesn't pack the same kind of punch. "Artisan--Four Portraits and a Miniature" follows the life of an artist named Jyll, but it also features a younger Dorrin when he was known as the toymaker. This began as an odd one, but it ends on a strong note years after the founding of Nylan. In "Armsman's Odds," Asoryk and Daasn save a black mage from a trap set by a white mage. "Brass and Lacquer" also occurs in Nylan and is a tale of deception and its consequences. In "Ice and Fire," a young man uses order to help heal his aunt. "A Game of Capture" demonstrates how black engineers and order mages protect the secrets of the black ships. "The Assistant Envoy's Problem" felt kind of weird at the beginning, but it was nice to discover how Erdyl, Envoy of Austra in Brysta, managed to obtain trained guards to guard his residence without breaking the law.
"The Price of Perfect Order" is another quality tale in which black mages go to great lengths in order to protect their secerets and the price one must pay if they are caught stealing forbidden knowledge. It was great to find out more about Cassius' backstory and how he came to arrive in Recluce in "Black Ordermage." Not sure exactly how "Burning Duty" ended up in this collection. Stefanyk, one of the Prefect's guards, puts his career on the line by trying to salvage a magical chair meant to be burned. "Worth" provides answers to anyone who ever wondered what happened to Wrynn after The Magic of Recluce. And "Fame" closes the show and is a decidedly anticlimactic piece that takes place years following the events of The Death of Chaos. Yet it does show that fame is usually ephemeral.
As is habitually his wont, Modesitt came up with another intelligent, thoughtful, and entertaining read without unnecessary bells and whistles. Once again, Recluce Tales is adult fantasy by an author in perfect control of his craft and his universe. Like fine wine, L. E. Modesitt, jr. only gets better with time.