Monday, January 8, 2024

Nanoreviews (Modesitt Edition): From the Forest, Contrarian

From the Forest, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr

From the Forest introduces another chapter in Modessit’s Recluce Saga and is the twenty third novel in the sequence and the first in a four volume sequence focusing on Alyiakal, a young officer in the Cyadoran military. Long time readers of the series may recognize that name from the Magi’i of Cyador but new readers can rest assured that no prior series knowledge is necessary. From the Forest is the earliest set Recluce novel and is some 300ish years before any of the other books. 

Alyiakal’s story should be familiar to Modesitt readers: A young man doesn’t quite fit into a clear path into his life, ends up in the military, is extraordinarily competent and deeply moral within the structures of his society, faces challenges to his life, and if he lives will be on a path towards greatness. If he lives is frequently mentioned because that competence and morality is also viewed as a threat to those in power - so somehow hiding his power is critical while still striving towards that excellence because there is no other option. Also, Alyiakal is a secret magic user and needs to keep that power secret from the Magi’i because he doesn’t fit neatly into one of Cyador’s boxes / proscribed path for a (somewhat) upper caste person. That’s an entirely different conversation. 

A Modesitt novel, and From the Forest in particular, lives in the details. It’s how Alyiakal goes about his life, learns his business in the military, keeps secret a very cautious romance, and is thrown into increasingly challenging military campaigns. Modesitt is a slooooow burn of ordinary life and explosions of action. 

Modesitt knows *his* business and is incredibly skilled at telling this sort of story and telling it the way he does. To a small point, a Recluce novel is a Recluce novel (is an Imager novel is a Corean Chronicle novel is a Grand Illusion novel) and all of the story beats readers may expect to be hit will be hit. Each novel isn’t the same thing, but it’s not not the same thing either. 

It’s a good time and pure comfort food. Bring on the next.


Contrarian, by L.E. Modesitt Jr

After completing his Imager Portfolio series and in between volumes of The Saga of Recluce, Modesitt wrote “The Grand Illusion” trilogy - which though it can’t feel like anything else than a Modesitt fantasy novel he’s doing something a little bit different with this trilogy (Isolate, Councilor) that is focused on the inner workings of politics. 

Steffan Dekkard is now somewhat more established as a Councilor (read: Senator) though still in his first term and dealing with the fallout of the last attack on the council building which killed his mentor (and Premier / Prime Minister) and a (seemingly) slow desperate investigation of the politically violent movement behind it and threatening future action and violence if their demands aren’t met. 

I’m both curious about Modesitt’s personal politics and at the same time I don’t really want to know how much he is exploring ideas here compared to what he truly believes - but because of the particular demands of the Meritorists (the organized opposition group singing the song of angry men) and how Dekkard righteously states why most of their demands are a terrible idea - the one in particular that keeps coming up is the idea of public votes from councilors, with Dekkard’s criticism that if the populace knew which councilor voted which way then those councilors would be subject to significant financial and social pressure to fall in line rather than potentially voting for things they truly believe in. It is a bit of a criticism of the political system of the United States and, at least on a surface level, seems accurate if simplistic but the system in Dekkard’s world is equally full of party politics so there may not be a significant difference. It’s just more of a secret with the party politics, but maybe not that much more of a secret compared to contemporary American politics. 

All of that musing is pertinent because that is the novel Contrarian is - a book where Dekkard manages to start a new political movement in a moment where readers everywhere say “oh, that’s why the title is what it is”, which I suppose is a spoiler but I’m not convinced is as much as it might come across. It’s a truly minor plot point that might be larger in the director’s cut. Along with the daily life details that Modesitt revels in, a significant portion of Contrarian exists within the details of this world’s political process - which all slow burns to a climactic bit of explosive action. 

Unlike most Modesitt novels, prior knowledge of Isolate and Councilor are very much needed. Contrarian is a mostly successful conclusion to The Grand Illusion, though is a bit of a middling Modesitt novel.

Joe Sherry - Senior Editor of Nerds of a Feather, Hugo and Ignyte Award Winner. Minnesotan.