L. E. Modesitt Jr.
First Line: In the late afternoon on the Roof of the World, the guards stood silent on the practice ground, their eyes fixed on the blackness rising just above the western horizon as Istril stepped out of the main door of Tower Black and crossed the causeway.
As I mentioned when I first wrote about reading Arms-Commander this is my first Recluce novel since I read The Magic of Recluce some time after having plowed through the first couple of Wheel of Time novels. I had forgotten precisely how odd the chronology of the series is where the first novel written is, in essence, is the penultimate tale in the series with the fifth novel written The Death of Chaos is actually the conclusion of the saga at large. Needless to see for someone used a distinct beginning to end chronology in his fantasy Modesitt stands amongst a bare handful of fantasy authors whose series’ internal chronology leave me scratching my head in confusion (Katerine Kerr’s Deverry novels, and Steven Brust’s Draegaran novels, being two of the other that I struggle a bit with). You read it hear first folks, non-linear story-telling confuses the hell out of me.
Despite my confusion as to the chronology of the Saga of Recluce the blurb for Arms-Commander had me a bit excited:
Arms-Commander takes place ten years after the end of The Chaos Balance and tells the story of the legendary Saryn. The keep of Westwind, in the cold mountainous heights called the Roof of the World, is facing attack by the adjoining land of Gallos. Arthanos, son and heir to the ailing Prefect of Gallos, wishes to destroy Westwind because the idea of a land where women rule is total anathema to him.
Saryn, Arms-Commander of Westwind, is dispatched to a neighboring land, Lornth, to seek support against the Gallosians. In the background, the trading council of Suthya is secretly and informally allied with Gallos against Westwind and begins to bribe lord-holders in Lornth to foment rebellion and civil war. They hope to create such turmoil in Lornth that the weakened land will fall to Suthya. But Zeldyan, regent of Lornth, has problems in her family. To secure Zeldyan’s aid, Saryn must pledge her personal support—and any Westwind guard forces she can raise—to the defense of Zeldyan and her son. The fate of four lands, including Westwind, rests on Saryn’s actions.
There are a number of points that jumped out at me in that little blurb, particularly the role of gender politics in the novel (not something every fantasy novel explores) and the hint of a blend of military action and politics. Unfortunately while the novel certainly succeeds in delivering the latter it is on the former that I’m less certain.
My main concern with how Arms-Commander handles the female-empowering goals behind the all-female Westwind guards is the presupposition of the state and treatment of women in the novel. While we get hints as to the near-enslavement of women by the now toppled Cyador, and constant comments by Saryn and other that the influx of fresh recruits indicates solid proof of poor conditions for women it is all, or almost inferred. While further comments from men in the ruling class reinforce the typical views on the role of women in the novel we are never really given a perspective that illustrates what the women of the novel are truly experience. While we get a glimpse of the trials, tribulations, and prejudice that women in the ruling class must face through there is no clear example of what challenges and pain the working class woman faces. Needless to say I was a bit disappointed by this aspect of the novel. While evidence in Arms-Commander certainly points towards women as second-class citizens it is never something we really witness outright and thus only serves as means to examine how the social changes that Westwind, and Saryn’s actions in Lornth, is forcing on the land effect the nations of the land. It is entirely possible that the sub-series that Arms-Commander concludes (starting with The Fall of Angels and continuing in the The Chaos Balance) showed more evidence regarding the treatment of women but that, having not read anything else in the series, is not something I’d be privy to.
From what I understand of the blurb, and implied in some epitaphs over the course of the novel, is that Saryn is something of a legend in later years and presumable appears, or is mentioned, in previous volumes of the Saga of Recluce. As such Arms-Commander stands as a means of attempting to humanize a historic/legendary figure in the mythology of Modesitt’s world and attempt to examine how her actions affected future generations. Given that long-time series readers have knowledge of how the world post-Saryn turns out Modesitt is then able to use Saryn’s perspective to serve as a means to examine and question the moral underpinnings beneath the decisions and actions that Saryn takes. Was she a tyrant? Or a benevolent catalyst of sweeping social change? Or was she just a soldier? Do the ends really justify the means? There is a fascinating implication in asking these questions. A lot of the novel and Saryn’s exploration with the nature of chaos and order magic center around the idea of balance (as I suspect much of this series does). The novel is rife with bipolar oppositions capped particularly by the conflict between male and female, as well as the white and black associated with chaos and order respectively. As Saryn’s knowledge of magic increase however there is a shift in her own magical aura (indicated by several healer’s gifted in order magic) and eyes towards the color gray. Saryn is then both an agent of change and an agent of balance. Pardon my deconstructionist tendencies but Saryn is in many ways the pharmakon of Arms-Commander. She destroys in order to build, creates chaos out of the need for a new order. Then again maybe I’m imagining things. But I think that Saryn’s role in the conflicts that abound in the novel provides some fascinating food for thought and fit nicely with the philosophical underpinnings that Modesitt uses to create fantasy.
I’ve gone on quite long enough I think. Arms-Commander is a entertaining, if flawed, read. It is perhaps best suited for individuals who are already deep into the Saga of Recluce. That isn’t to say that new readers won’t find anything of value here, I definitely did, only that I think more experience with Recluse likely lends greater insight into the preceding. This is well-crafted, thought provoking high fantasy that is certainly worth a look if you have the time and patience.