Scion of Cyador is actually the second part in a two book series, set within the larger framework of Modesitt's Saga of Recluce. The series is far from being in internal chronological order, in fact, this particular duology was written much later (2001) but is in fact a prequel to the entire Recluce saga, set about four hundred years before The Magic of Recluce (1991) the first of the Saga of Recluce books. The prequel to Scion of Cyador, Magi'i of Cyador is generally considered to be the beginning of the Calendar used throughout the series. This calender has no weeks, instead it has an 8-day time period, covering seven different time periods and ten major storylines.
In The Saga of Recluce, order and chaos are tangible forces to be manipulated at will. Of course, like all forms of power, a restrictive, traditionalist elite (Order Mages and Chaos Wizards) control it. This'll take some explaining, but fortunately for the sake of this review, there are no order Mages in the empire of Cyad, only chaos wielders. It's a little confusing, but it does establish that chaos was around to be manipulated well before order was. It's a fairly clichéd beginning, the reason for the existence of both Order and Chaos Mages is visits from beyond the stars. The stars are often referred to as the Rational Stars, referring to the rationalists - a group of wayfaring galactic travellers - who came to Candar (the continent on which Cyad, later known as Fairhaven) and were technologically advanced Mages whose descendants would take up the mantle of ruling by chaos, so to speak. It's important to remember that chaos doesn't necessarily mean entropy and nothing else, although, to be fair, in the books told through the perspectives of the chaos wielders - Lorn and Cerryl* - (both Chaos Mages albeit very different ones) that is what is primarily used for, as a weapon. It can be used for other purposes, though, like cleaning sewers. The advanced technology that the Rationalists bequeathed to their descendants include fireships, firelances, fire cannon...is a pattern starting to emerge? Fire, being in many ways the embodiment of chaos, is naturally the primary element. However, by the time of the events of Scion of Cyador, the fireships etcetera are beginning to fail, and everyone knows it's just a matter of time before advanced weaponry disappears altogether. Lorn, the primary protagonist and narrative focus of Scion of Cyador, knows this, but finds it difficult to convince others of the truth of it, especially the more traditional minded Senior Mages, particularly Kharl, the scheming Second Magus, who will sacrifice anything and everything to his ambition of succeeding the ailing Emperor of Cyad.
What makes The Saga of Recluce fairly unique in its marvellousness (the magical element, or the source of the ability to manipulate the forces of nature) is the way in which the basic forces of entropy (chaos) and molecular binding (order) can be utilized. It can be remarkably job-oriented; a lot of the Order Mages are vocationally trained, like Dorrin the Smith, or Lerris the Carpenter. Essentially, this is quantum manipulation, with the forces being channelled through individuals of great skill and talent, although (mostly for political reasons) they try and conceal that.The White Mages, especially in SoC, are more enforcers than rulers, although they do build roads, and occasionally raise mountains, although this changes by the time of the Cerryl books, when the White Mages are the power in the city of Fairhaven and most of the Continent of Candar. However the events of this dulogy are set well before that, and this is the best place to start, chronologically speaking. Lorn is probably my favourite out of all of Modesitt's protagonists, and this is one book I've read time and again from cover to cover, not just skipping through to my favourite bits. Click on read more for details about the series, and specifics on Scion of Cyador.
Like a lot of other fantasy series - The Wheel of Time, for instance - magic involves the weaving of elemental forces into a cohesive and tangible form. It's no secret that the yin-yang duality, or the Manichean philosophy forms the basis of a lot of these books. What makes Scion of Cyador interesting though, is that its not a straightforward good vs. bad or order vs. chaos type thing, largely because the second lot of extraterrestrial visitors (later called the angels), who, unsurprisingly enough were also intergalactic space travellers who lost their way, came to Candar and established what is called the Black Tower. They use the forces of order, and eventually establish a colony of Black/Order Mages on the island of Recluce. This is detailed in Fall of Angels and The Chaos Balance, which follow the exploits of Nylan and Lyra, the most important of the "fallen Angels". Most of the other books in the series are involved with Mages from Recluce - Lerris, Justen, Dorrin, and others.
Most of The Saga of Recluce books follow the same pattern, and SoC is possibly the best example. Lorn, the main protagonist, is the son of the Fourth Magus of Cyad. While very talented his teachers believe he doesn't have the right attitude to become a Magus himself, being a little too sure of himself, honest, and contemptuous of the necessity of politics. In order to prevent him from being killed, his father enlists him in the Mirror Lancers, the military enforcement arm of the Empire of Cyad. Most of this is detailed in Magi'i of Cyador, wherein Lorn is posted to various locations around the Empire, and has to hone his military and chaos wielding skills while being very careful not to draw too much attention to himself, as that would be politically dangerous for himself and his better half - Ryalth, a beautiful merchanter - back in Cyad. Scion of Cyador follows up on this. I won't give too much away, but the second part involves Lorn completely trouncing the barbarians of the north, and then being summoned back to Cyad to work directly for the Major-Commander, the head of the Mirror Lancers. That's when the real politicking begins, and as always, is what makes Modessitt fun to read.
The basic criticism, of course, is that it's formulaic and predictable. The books go into a lot of detail, and if thats the sort of thing that turns you off, The Saga of Recluce isn't for you. But the Lorn Duology is more fast paced and exciting than most, particularly because it hops around the whole continent of Candar. Being a military man, and more than a little unpopular amongst some of his senior officers, Lorn generally gets sent to the worst postings there are - The Accursed Forest, the fallen to pieces port of Biehl, and the northern outposts that witness the most number of barbarian attacks. One particular feature of Modesitt's style of writing is the ability of the main protagonists to use their Order senses to be able to overhear conversations happening a fair distance away. This lends itself to some interesting reading. He also writes terrific battle sequences, although not really on an epic Tarmon Gaidon/Battle of Minas Tirith scale. His point of view mostly remains third person perspective omniscient, although he often slips into narrative-passive mode as well. There's a what "Mode-is-it?" pun here, but I won't make it, that'd be tacky. It can get bogged down in detail though, so if you want fast paced epic narrative, this isn't really the series for you, unlike say, David Eddings, or Anne McCaffrey. But, ironically enough, it's that attention to detail that makes Modesitt well worth reading. You'll never find yourself calling out "Aha!" on chronological mistakes in the series after you've read it a few times, which happens a lot in other series. And this one wasn't even published chronologically! But do start with the Lorn duology. It's by far my favourite in the entire Saga of Recluce series.
* The Lorn books: Magi'' of Cyador and Scion of Cyador. The Cerryl Books - The White Order and The Colours of Chaos.