Fantasy Review: The Mongrel Mage by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

The 19th installment of The Saga of Recluce, and the first of a new trilogy arc within the overall saga, The Mongrel Mage is an interesting read with moments of excitement, but not one of L.E. Modesitt Jr.'s better efforts.

I found this to be extraordinarily dry and sluggish in its pacing, with a protagonist who does nothing to distinguish himself or the story until very late in the book. It took me longer to read the first 150 pages that many much longer books. During that time, we rode to a handful of identical villages, had the same conversations with the same stock characters, and watched as Beltur skulked around similar-looking walls listening to similarly banal snippets of conversation. I just wanted something to happen, good or bad, that might give him a chance to propel the story forward.

Beltur is an odd character. For much of the story, he is a boring, dense, insecure man of indeterminate age. I vacillated between thinking of him as a tiresome adolescent and an exasperating man. There is no color to him, no personality, and little in the way of emotion. It doesn't help that the characters with whom he opens the story, Kaerylt and Sydon, are no more likable or dynamic. The characterization does get better later in the book, particularly with the healers, Margrena and Jessyla, and the Black Mages, Athaal and Meldryn - who, if I am not mistaken, are the first gay characters to grace the pages of the saga.

Where the story does excel, and this is something Modesitt always does well, is in the more intellectual aspects - the puzzles, the mysteries, and the magical experimentation. I've always appreciated his exploration of Black and White, not as Evil versus Good but as Order and Chaos, and here he has Beltur get into the shades of grey in between. It sometimes dominates too much of the story, and halts any narrative progress at times, but watching him experiment with interweaving Chaos and Order to strengthen his magic is fascinating.

The story's biggest weakness is that nothing significant happens. It is more a side-story, one that happens within story arcs we've already explored, where Beltur is more a cog than a catalyst. That aspect is probably less noticeable to new readers, who might enjoy this more, but it doesn't really offer much that's new or exciting for long-term fans of the Saga. Hopefully, with his character established and his growing pains out of the way, Outcasts of Order will prove to be a better installment.

Paperback, 751 pages
Published September 25th 2018 by Tor Books