Tor Fantasy Firsts is a yearlong celebration of the first books in fantasy series from the biggest publisher in genre. Every month, Tor hopes to get people talking about old favorites and introducing new ones, and we’re part of the chorus: all year long, we’ll be featuring guest posts from Fantasy First authors discussing their series. This month, we welcome L.E. Modesitt, Jr., who tells us why his series might not be a series at all.
For most readers, The Magic of Recluce is the first book in the Recluce series, except that, by most definitions, the Saga of Recluce is anything but the standard series. In fact, the saga might be called unique, in that the 18 books to date comprise the fictional history of a world ranging over nearly 2,000 years on five continents (or four continents and a large island, if you want to be precise).
The events in these books take place in more than 20 countries, involving political systems that include patriarchal despotism, empire, wizardly council overlords, commercial oligarchy, duchies, matriarchal despotism, and matrilineal monarchy, not to mention tribal herders, sylvan druids, and the rise and fall of empires.
Those 18 don’t include Recluce Tales, a volume of 20 stories and novellas, 17 of which are new, which will be released in January, or The Mongrel Mage, which will be published by Tor in November of 2017.
Why isn’t the saga really a series? That means defining what a series is. According to A Handbook to Literature, a series is “a group of works centering on a single character or set in a single place or time.”
A single character in the Recluce Saga? Hardly. No character in the Recluce novels has more than two books, and some only have one. (For that reason, you don’t have to read the books in either publication or chronological order for each book to make sense on its own, although I would suggest reading the first book about a given character before reading the second.)
Second, because of the sweep of the saga, there isn’t a continuous thread following one protagonist, or even one family, or one country, or even one “type” of protagonist. While some readers have the impression that I write only about “young heroes,” almost half the books deal with older protagonists, some even with families. And, over 2,000 years, scarcely “a single place or time,” readers can see the rise and fall of countries and empires around the world. They can see a war from the viewpoint of “heroes” on each side. They can also see a ruler wrestling with how much he should and can tax his people in order to maintain the forces to keep them free—one of the few times in fiction showing sympathetically the other side of the trope of “evil overtaxation.”
Third, the stylistic presentation of the viewpoint character can differ from book to book. The Magic of Recluce presents the story of Lerris from the first personal past tense, because, given Lerris’s cluelessness, telling his story in the third person past tense would portray young Lerris as self-centered and spoiled, and he’s neither—but bright and clueless, with perhaps a touch of what we’d call Asperger Syndrome. The second book—The Towers of the Sunset—sets out the story of a young male in a matriarchal society about to be married off while his younger sister is being groomed to rule, and it’s told in the third person present tense, which conveys a greater sense of immediacy.
Not until the third book, The Magic Engineer, is a story told in the conventional third person past tense. I didn’t do it that way as an exercise, but because the narrative tense and viewpoint, I believe, has to give the most depth and reality to the story, and to fit the protagonist.
But then, the Recluce books aren’t really a “saga,” either, because sagas are supposed to be tales of heroism following one individual or family. And that’s why I tend to think of the Recluce books as the history of a fantasy world. But, of course, that doesn’t have much marketing appeal, and “saga” comes closer than “series” and is a lot more marketable than “events and adventures in the fantasy world of Recluce.”
In short, the Saga of Recluce doesn’t fit any easy definition, and even when I wrote the first book, more than 25 years ago, it represented a different approach to fantasy from almost the first pages because, among many other things, the color of the ostensibly “good” guys is black, rather than white, though as the saga proceeds, it becomes obvious that it’s never that simple—like life. And like life, the Recluce books don’t fit a simple description, whether that description is “heroic fantasy,” “series,” “saga,” or anything else, but that might also be why readers continue to enjoy and appreciate them.