Today I’d like to take some time to talk about one of my favourite magic systems in what might be my favourite books of all time. That’s right, it’s time to Demystify The Saga of Recluce.
The Saga of Recluce takes place in an unnamed world that revolves around a deep, mechanical balance between Order and Chaos. Some people naturally embody these forces, typically leaning towards one or the other. Order is personified by the colour black while Chaos is white. Very few mages are purely one or the other, they are just referred to by the one they most strongly personify.
Black Mages, or Ordermasters have abilities relating to controlling or reinforcing the natural order of the world. Their abilities lie with manipulation and strengthening things. White Mages are those who are tied to chaos. Their abilities involve destruction or separation. There are also Grey Mages who try to balance both order and chaos, although they have a tendency to avoid direct use of Chaos. Use of Chaos magic, directly or indirectly, shortens one’s lifespan. Use of Order does slows the aging process some as aging is tied to Chaos.
The World operates under a very mechanical and unforgiving Balance. Increasing Order creates Chaos elsewhere, and vice versa. The inverse is true as well, if you limit either Order or Chaos, the other becomes limited as well. In cases where there is a great amount of Order or Chaos in one place, the World will create a ‘focus’ for the other power, usually in the form of a particularly gifted mage.
This is just the key events of History as relevant to the magic system, for in reality the entire story is the ‘history’ of this world and I’m not going to summarize 14 books here!
In the early times of the world, the balance was easily maintained as there weren’t any who could separate order and chaos from the natural forces of the world. It was only later that such people arrived in the world from another universe. The other universe contains two high tech societies known respectively as Angels and Demons who were perpetually at war.
At some point long before the first book takes place, some event transported several of the spaceships used by the Demons to the World, where they landed, recognizing the power inherent in the land and the balance, and utilized what technology they had left that still worked to turn the land into a power source. Then, some centuries later, a similar event forced a ship full of Angels to be transported to this world. Unlike the Demons, their technology for the most part stopped working nearly immediately, and only a small amount of it remained to them.
The reason these two events are relevant is that it was these ‘outsiders’ and their descendants who possessed the ability to focus order and chaos, drawing it out from the world and using it in various applications.
Both Order and Chaos magic have certain powers that will achieve the same result through opposing means.
Invisibility is one such power. An Order Mage who wishes to become invisible must use order to alter the patterns of the light around them, effectively creating a shield that bends light around them so that they cannot be properly seen. Since doing so does work in light, it is closer to the grey side, so a White Mage that leans towards grey can do the same.
Farsight is another power that is available to both. Chaos Mages can separate rays of light and force them to display images on a mirror to allow them to see things far away. Order Mages have to use their senses to recognize the Order and Chaos patterns of things in the distance without seeing them.
Creating shields against magic is on the border of Order and Chaos, and as such is a power that all mages tend to be able to perform.
Chaos, or White, Magic
The powers granted to those who deal with Chaos tend to be pretty straightforward, and tend to deal with fire, light, and destruction. A White Mage can focus the natural Chaos forces of the world into fire. They can also create separations that effectively block someone’s personality or memories from showing – called a ‘White Prison’. They can use tiny amounts of Chaos power to destroy the bacteria and such that causes infections or some diseases.
White Mages who are leaning more towards the grey side can also use a combination of Order and Chaos to create beams or lances of light that can burn or pierce through things.
Order, or Black, Magic
Order Magic is a little bit less straightforward, since it is more about adjusting what’s already there. For example, an Order Mage can create more sturdy, hardened, or durable materials by investing Order into them while crafting. They can also manipulate the weather by adjusting the strength of the various Order ties in the air and water. The most frequent power used by Black Mages is healing. They use Order to either temporarily hold bones in place while they knit properly, or to strengthen the immune system so it can fight off disease, and infection.
Black Mages leaning towards the grey side can use Order to manipulate natural chaos forces without directly touching them, by either creating channels in the Earth through which they can flow or by using their powers to adjust the trajectory of fireballs and such used by Chaos Mages.
Behind the Scenes
The really cool part of the magic in Recluce goes beyond the basics above. What’s above is really oversimplifying it, as each mage is different. What makes the magic system in this series so fantastic is that magic itself changes based off the mage using it. How a mage’s mind works will impact the way that the power looks, feels, and works in that mage’s hands. This means that magic cannot truly be taught. I love that concept.
That sounds pretty straightforward, and it seems like something that could be said about almost every system, but it’s literally true in Recluce. If you take, for example, Saryn and Kharl.
Saryn sees Order and Chaos as flows that meet in sort of ‘nodes’. By manipulating those nodes, she can weaken mountains, walls, or other objects. By making use of the flows, she creates ‘extensions’ for her blades. Kharl, on the other hand, sees Order as a series of ties and hooks. He uses the hooks to create solid sheets of air and water that can block crossbow bolts, fireballs, and swords. By using the ties he is able to force White Mages’ powers to rebound on them, forcing them to incinerate themselves.
These specific powers are never used by anyone else. Why? Because nobody else sees power in those specific ways and thus nobody really came up with the ideas to do them, or found the means. And every single mage, whether White or Black or Grey, has this same sort of uniqueness. It’s absolutely and utterly fantastic.
Not only that, but thanks to the fact that most of what Magic is results from working with the natural forces, this system really creates a level of ‘balance’ between power and finesse. A weaker mage with more understanding can still achieve incredible results through understanding.
Is That All?
Nope! There are two other really cool and unique things to the magic of Recluce.
First and foremost is the fact that magic is practical. It’s not exclusively used for combat and recovery thereafter. Mages have trades, they have specializations, and they actually are productive.
Order Mages tend to be craftsmen – usually working with Wood or Metals. Coopers, Carpenters, Smiths, and Engineers are all trades that tend to work well for Ordermages. Black Mages can also speed up plant growth, help ensure that animals are healthy, work to create new breeds of animals or plants, and other things.
White Mages, on the other hand, have a bit more limited trades. Chaos can be used to clean roads, to help sense for smuggled goods, to remove bacteria from water and aqueducts, and other things like that.
The fact that Mages aren’t just Mages makes for a very interesting twist and one that just makes the magic feel that much more real in the world.
The other really unique and defining aspect of the Recluce series is the severe nature of the consequences of using power. These consequences include the more obvious consequences(like risk/reward and the ‘karma’ style what goes around comes around), and into some truly serious consequences related to mistakes and failures… and even successes.
White Mages will gradually become attuned to Chaos, the more of it they use. This will shorten their lifespan, make their presence cause decay in objects – such as wine turning into vinegar or paper aging much more quickly, and make them unable to bear the contact of Ordered objects such as those produced by skilled craftspeople or Order Mages. White Mages have to choose between power and these consequences, as the more powerful they become, the more severe these consequences become – for example the High Wizard of Fairhaven in the White Order cannot drink more than one or two sips of a glass of wine before it no longer tastes like wine – even if someone else brings the bottle in, pours it, and he drinks it immediately. White Mages can choose to reduce their powers by keeping Chaos further from their body, also reducing the impact of these problems.
Black Mages, on the other hand, are incapable of telling lies without severe discomfort. The more powerful they become, the more painful it is to even shade the truth – even when they’re merely thinking to themselves. Being attuned to Order also makes the use of edged devices difficult as they are designed to separate things or disrupt their natural order. Knives feel wrong to hold, and using a sword can make some Order Mages feel sick. Additionally, when a Black Mage uses his Order powers to create Chaos (such as by creating a storm that kills people or by using Order to create devices that can harm people) he experiences a severe backlash. These backlashes become cumulative, and can often result in the Order Mage temporarily losing his sense of sight or hearing, and sometimes even in death.
Grey Mages face the most immediate consequences as they tend to be tied to order but also handle Chaos. A Grey Mage who isn’t careful and fails to keep the Chaos away from themself may find themselves aging very suddenly. One character who makes a small mistake due to ignorance ages 20 years over the course of an hour. Permanently.
These types of consequences, again, help to make things feel logical and real, and help to keep the powers coherent, reasonable, limited, and balanced.
Writing about Recluce’s magic is a difficult task. Modesitt has put such tremendous effort into creating this world and it’s magic, and it shows in the complexity and depth found there. The duality of Chaos and Order creates a system that provides both uniqueness and coherence. The World and it’s magic are so tied together that it’s nearly impossible to talk about one without talking about the other, and despite having such a long history and so much written – it all makes sense. And it all balances.