Considering this is the first novel in one of the more popular fantasy sagas today, its unpretentious and even modest character may well be the most appealing thing about it. This is a good book, enjoyably engrossing, thankfully free of pomposity; a tale that builds its narrative architecture upon characters and a decidedly un-mythic approach to magic. It's just the working definition of the phrase "a good read." Nothing wrong with that, is there?
We begin in the island continent of Recluce, itself part of a realm where Order and Chaos, rather than Good and Evil, are the driving forces in perpetual conflict. Recluce lives up to its name, as a somewhat insular community devoted to absolute Order, to such a degree that its culture is more than a little oppressive. Lerris is a young man, just coming of age, who doesn't fit in with the absolutist ways of Recluce and its ruling body, the Brotherhood. Misfits like him are given a choice: either exile in one of the surrounding island countries, or to undertake the "dangergeld," a rite of passage rather like the traditional vision quest or wanderjahr, where a young person journeys for many years to find his purpose. Afterwards he may or may not be able to return to Recluce.
Lerris is a misfit in more ways than one. He seems to have the magical ability to detect the forces of Chaos. His black staff, a gift from his uncle, radiates such palpable energy that even some of the masters of the Brotherhood are nervous when he wields it. On top of that, during his dangergeld training, he learns offhand that his own father has been an Order-master all along. But for the most part, Lerris's attempts to get real answers to the questions that burn in his mind — not the least of which is why Recluce has to be run the way it is in the first place — are constantly frustrated by the Brotherhood's evasive and cryptic teachings.
Following his training, Lerris, along with the small band of similar misfits who trained with him for their own dangergeld, are shipped to the neighboring country of Candar. After barely a day's orientation in the city of Freetown, they are left to their own devices. This nearly proves instantly disastrous for Lerris. But after avoiding a few scrapes with some hostile locals, he becomes a bit more streetwise and careful in his travels. Before long it becomes obvious to Lerris there is trouble brewing in Candar. He falls in with Justen, a gray magician who juggles both white (Chaos) and black (Order) magic, and learns that Chaos-masters have a nasty habit of luring unsuspecting victims into their clutches under the guise of good works, then stealing their very souls. One Chaos-master in particular seems to be taking a particular interest in Lerris. Justen believes that Recluce is planning something, possibly even an offensive against Candar (though such an action seems to me to be contrary to Recluce's devotion to Order). Lerris eventually finds himself traveling alone again, all the while trying to learn how to use his burgeoning skills in wielding Order-magic.
The only times the plot gets a tad confusing are when Modesitt shifts away from Lerris's story to offer brief glimpses of a civil war brewing between two Candarian rulers. It's a narrative tangent that doesn't really come together until the novel's final third. But generally, Modesitt keeps his plotting to a minimum, and most of the story's conflict is internal to Lerris, as he struggles with learning how to use Order-magic properly. Considering how many fantasies of this sort are painfully overplotted, a simple yarn rooted in a likable protagonist is a breath of fresh air. Many epic fantasies trade in chliché and formula while basking in an inflated sense of their own importance. Recluce doesn't have that problem. There's one really nice sequence here where Lerris settles down for a year in the city of Fenard and lives as an apprentice woodworker. It's a great way to bring us close to him as a person, watching him develop some meaningful friendships.
On the other hand, there are no really strong antagonists to fuel dramatic tension. Antonin, a villainous Chaos-master who serves as the closest thing to a bad guy in the whole novel, only appears in a handful of scenes. His presence is mostly hinted at, his actions largely offstage. So the story's conflict is never as powerful as it could be, and the anticipated Final Confrontation is kind of anticlimactic. You occasionally find yourself wishing for more action to perk up the languid pacing. Yet overall, what Modesitt offers here is perfectly appealing all the same, just on a much more modest scale. This is the real magic of Recluce: a good, straightforward story without any delusions of its own grandeur.