This is the sixth book in ‘The Imager Portfolio’ so beware spoilers for previous episodes. The first three books are set in a different time with a different hero. The latter three, including this one, are set in an previous era and our hero is Quaeryt, a scholar and imager in the service of Bhayar, Lord of Teralyn. Earlier success means that Quaeryt is now married to Bhayar’s sister, Vaelora, and holds the nominal rank of sub-commander in the army, though his actual importance is higher because of his power. Imagers can create objects with their minds and also make actual objects disappear. So they can ‘image’ a piece of metal into your brain so you die or, more subtly, smoke and pepper into the ranks of enemy soldiers to make fighting more difficult. Quaeryt has been extending his skills for years and is now a formidable force. He commands a group of six other imagers of lesser skill. In fact, it is not generally known that Quaeryt himself is an imager, though some now suspect it.
This book starts immediately after the end of ‘Princeps’, the previous volume in ‘The Imager Portfolio’. After repelling an attack from the neighbouring nation of Bovaria, ruled by the evil Rex Kharst, the Telaryn forces are now engaged in an invasion of that country. Marshal Deucalon leads a large army up the north side of the river Aluse while Commander Skarpa leads a lesser force up the south side. Skarpa, an old companion of our hero from previous books, has Quaeryt and the imagers on his team. The likeable hero and his retinue of well-regarded comrades makes this a pleasing tale of good companions struggling together against a nasty foe.
Essentially, though, this is a war story, a detailed account of a long campaign invading another country. Modesitt has military experience and there’s a lot of attention paid to the landscape and how it affects battle tactics. There is also a degree of cynicism about the politics of military campaigns. The level of technology here is about that of civil war England, with pikemen, cavalry, muskets and a few cannon. Modesitt is realistic about the logistics of conflict, making sure the men are supplied with food and, if possible, get a good night’s rest before a big event. The descriptions of battle are not visceral, I’m glad to say. This is not a writer who lingers lovingly over the spurting blood and the organs flopping out. Modesitt is more likely to note that our troopers cut down the enemy forces and leave it at that. He is similarly vague about bedroom antics. Quaeryt and his wife sometimes allude to the fact that they had a good time last night or are looking forward to going to bed but we never go there with them. This is no bad thing in my view and actually, combined with the author’s reflections on morality and good government, makes the books suitable reading for young adults.
There are minor criticisms. My understanding of the pseudo-science of imagery is that they do not create from nothing but use atoms from the surrounding environment. So, if they image a bit of iron, it is utilising iron from the rocks around or from some other source. Imaging clouds of pepper into enemy forces would indicate that there has to be a good supply of the stuff nearby, which doesn’t seem possible. Pepper is not that common in quantity. A small complaint but Modesitt is usually pretty good at making his fantasy logical. I would also have liked a map of the campaign. There’s a map of Lydar, the continent on which the action takes place, but it doesn’t show the smaller towns involved in the conflict. Admittedly, I read an advance uncorrected proof and this might have been put right in the final version. Again, this is not a big issue, particularly as the author describes the landscape in such detail.
Modesitt’s style of narration, a day by day account of his hero’s actions, does not make for breathless excitement but it does forge a bond between the reader and the protagonist and gives a sense of solid reality to the proceedings that is somehow satisfying. These works lack the sex, violence, treachery and corruption that make for a gripping, money-spinning fantasy television series and, in fact, I can see how some readers might not appreciate Modesitt’s restrained approach. But for the many who do, including me, this is another solid contribution to his formidable output and a good read, too.