I read everything Modesitt writes although sometimes I wonder why. Some of his novels are excellent, full of interesting, well-developed characters, rich setting and back story, detailed world building. A few are less rewarding to read due to an abundance of minutia, slow pacing and wooden dialogue, but all have something to offer.
The Mongrel Mage falls on the less-exciting side of the scale. Modesitt places the events a few centuries, after The Chaos Balance when Cyador falls to the Accursed Forest, and before The Towers of the Sunset when Creslin establishes Recluse and the Westwind falls. That’s an interesting time, when white and black mages co-exist, before the white order establishes their mage-ocracy and there should be plenty of room for Modesitt to write more stories in this setting.
Beltur lives in Fenard with his uncle Kaerylt, a strong white mage. Beltur learns white chaos magic but isn’t very good at it. The Prefect of Gallos sends his uncle, his uncle’s apprentice Sydon, and Beltur along with a small squad to check out some problems with the herders in the southern grasslands part of Gallos. This section of the novel lasts a long time, pages and pages of riding, meeting with people, eating, riding some more. Oddly, Beltur is viewed as weak but he is very good at casting concealment.
When the group returns to Fenard the Prefect summons them, attacks and kills uncle Kaerylt while Beltur escapes. He flees to a healer he is attracted to, who connects him to black mage Athaal who is returning to Elpatra, part of Spidlar. This then kicks off the middle part of the story where Beltur travels with Athaal, learns how to be a black mage and handle order, then gets himself employed to forge cupridium.
Eventually Gallos decides to invade Spidlar and attack Elpatra. Beltur is drafted to act as a mage in support of a reconnaissance company and of course manages to save the country.
Major Problems with the Book
Beltur is a typical older teen wanna-be-entitled brat. Uncle Kaerylt treats him well but not any better than he treats apprentice Sydon, and Beltur gets all the dirty jobs because Sydon dumps them off unless Uncle sees it. But our hero manages to stifle his sighs and grin and bear it because he is so, so, so something. Frankly I don’t see a problem with making apprentices or nephews work, and labor division never feels fair to those doing the work. I kept wanting to yell at Beltur to get a grip, quit your whining and get on with it.
When he escapes Fenard, Beltur discovers he is actually more an order mage than a chaos mage, and darn good at it too. In fact he’s pretty much the strongest guy around! But of course he manages to remain humble etc., etc.
Then when he’s drafted he discovers that some of the other mages, those who have been order mages all their lives, think he’s a mongrel, not a real black, doesn’t deserve the pretty girl, and work to get him killed. There is absolutely nothing given that would explain their attitude aside from jealousy over the girl and the fact that Beltur started as a white. Beltur figures it’s because he isn’t good looking and is so powerful despite being trained as a white.
In a word, Beltur is obnoxious.
Beltur felt like a hanger onto which Modesitt hung the suit “Black Order Mage / Young Guy Finding Himself” and not like a real person. ALL of Modesitt’s heroes are misunderstood, suffering types, ALL are stronger than/wiser than/better than and all are beset by other who want to kill/exploit/dominate them. It gets tiresome.
After we spent a third of the book riding through grasslands, then another 10% or so journeying from Fenard to Elpatra, we then go on yet more tours with the reconnaissance company. Modesitt used to write tight novels that balanced action with description, but he’s gotten way more descriptive in many of his recent books. He doesn’t use the extra filler to develop his characters or increase tension.
The result is a book that is less enjoyable to read, doesn’t feel as meaty.
Beltur himself says that he was raised by his father, then his uncle, to be quite formal and disciplined. Formality itself isn’t a problem, but it adds to the overall slowness and lack of coherency.
For example, in all Modesitt’s books characters all conform to some dress code. Black mages wear black, healers wear black and green, so on. When they talk to each other they don’t make small talk or chit chat, they talk serious. When they talk to people outside their group they are pure business. Beltur buys a set of clothes from a tailor who appears quite interesting but never even attempts to talk to her.
The lack of normal conversation often underlies many of the plot conflicts. Majer Waeltur didn’t know Beltur could shield himself and others or toss back chaos bolts. Of course he didn’t ask Beltur either. No one in a Modesitt book ever thinks to just talk to someone.
Let’s see. We get a short musing on income inequality when Beltur realizes he made more in a couple days forging cupridium blades – which no one has done for centuries – than his friend Athaal made in a week spotting diseased sheep and plants. We have a gay couple whom some see as “different”, almost mongrels themselves, and of course it’s only the evil mages who dislike Beltur who think this. Once again traders care about money and status and nothing else, certainly not people or fairness or helping anyone. Beltur just sadly shakes his head at the overall stupidity, cupidity of it all. Gaah, I dislike this character!
Lots of science fiction and fantasy authors shove their politics into their books, sometimes by having the main character explain something (see John Ringo) or by matter-of-fact comments that of course thus and such is… I don’t care for it unless the politics are directly part of the story. In this case they feel shoved in.
Not sure who fell down on this one, but the action all takes place in Gallos and Spidlar. The book includes a map of the whole of the world and more detailed map of Hamor. It was hard to keep straight all the roads to Elpatra, which side of the river we were on, why the better road was on the side opposite from the city, where Axalt was, Suthya, so on.
Put a nice, detailed map of Elpatra and regions around it, and a map of Candar that shows all these countries and cities.
As usual Modesitt builds on his already well-developed alternate world, Recluse. The backstory is hinted, not rehashed.
I used to buy most Modesitt novels because I re-read every one, many over and over. But the later Recluse novels aren’t worth re-reading. I don’t expect I’ll re-read Mongrel Mage either, although I’ll ask our library for the sequel, Outcasts of Order.
Amazon links pay commission.