Councilor (The Grand Illusion Book 2 of 3) by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (book review).

‘Councilor’ is the second book of ‘The Grand Illusion’ book series and you would need to read ‘Isolate’ before this one for it to make much sense. ‘Councilor’ has many of the same characters and the setting is still the state of Guldor. In the first book, our hero, Steffan Dekkard, was a security aide and administrator in the office of Councilor Obreduur, a member of the Craft Party. Now he’s a Councilor himself, the Craft Party is in government and Obreduur is President.

This is a gaslight fantasy which means technology has reached the steam power level and society is going through an industrial revolution with all the trouble that entails. Workers are made unemployed by new machines and corporacions, as Modesitt calls them, are ruthless about increasing their profits, heedless of any social harm. The Craft Party represents guilds and workers more generally. The Commerce Party serves the corporacions and corruption was rife under their regime. The rich were getting richer and the poor poorer, surprise, surprise. Now that the Craft Party is in control they hope to redress the balance in favour of the toiling masses but the corporacions still have plenty of power and the revolutionary New Meritorist movement is gaining support. The government has a lot to do.

Against this background, we follow Dekkard’s daily life. Literally. The novel proceeds at a chapter a day, more or less. Stephan has married Avraal, his former security comrade, and lives in a suburban house with her sister, Emrelda, now a widow. Every morning, he gets up, breakfasts on coffee and a croissant full of quince paste and drives his steam-powered car to work at the council building. He is on the security committee, working on a bill to disband the Special Agents who seem to engage in illegal operations for corporate interests. There are several assassination attempts on Dekkard, so he drives a different route to work every day. As well as committee meetings, he has talks with Obreduur about strategies to pass bills and lots of lunches. Dekker is fond of three-cheese chicken but will sometimes have white bean soup. Modesitt continues to love describing menus.

He also loves discussing political systems and the one in Guldor has some parallels with our own time. The interest groups in an industrial society perhaps always work out this way, workers against owners with the former wanting better wages and the latter wanting better profits. There is also a Landor Party representing the old aristocracy with vast estates and inherited wealth. As in 19th century Britain, they tend to ally with the rising business class. The set-up is not an allegory for modern day politics because the financiers are not a real force and they control the world now. Ask our new British Prime Minister, whoever it is this week.

Mister Modesitt always put a lot of politics into his fantasy adventure novels but this one pretty much eschews action altogether. It’s the daily life of a new member of the government, not even the man in charge, though Dekker has some influence. Five hundred pages of this may well be too much for some people and it certainly won’t suit a fantasy fan looking for romance and adventure.

I rather liked it for its gentle, almost soporific quality. It’s very easy to read and falls into a comforting pattern as you follow Dekkard’s routine, occasionally broken by something mildly interesting. The characters are quite nice and would make charming dinner companions. The chat about how to run a country so that no one feels left behind enough to revolt is rather engaging if you are at all interested in politics. If you are not, it will bore the pants off you.

Once they have a large enough fanbase, old writers can ignore commercial constraints and write about what interests them. Heinlein slowly dropped plots to become a lecturer on politics and Modesitt seems to be going a similar route. Like Attila the Hun, he is somewhat to the left of Heinlein politically and I find his sensible social democratic ideas more sympathetic. Putting them over in fictional form is an honourable pastime but he might get more readers if he made the plots more eventful, added some sex and violence, cut about 100 pages out of the manuscript and upped the pace a little. He won’t.

Even so, this was worth reading and I look forward without breathless anticipation to the third book, ‘Contrarian’, in ‘The Grand Illusion’ trilogy next year. I’m sure it will be quite interesting.

Eamonn Murphy

October 2022

(pub: TOR, 2022. 528 page hardback. Price: $29.99 (US), £23.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-250814-456

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