The first thing to say about ’Princeps’ is that L.E. Modesitt makes no concessions to new readers in this sequel and if you haven’t read ‘Scholar’, book four in ‘The Imager Portfolio’, it’s not worth getting this one. On the other hand, if you haven’t read books one to three in ‘The Imager Portfolio’, it doesn’t matter because ‘Scholar’ and ‘Princeps’ form a completely separate story, a prequel, in fact. I should also mention that ‘Scholar’ is worth reading.
‘Princeps’ opens a couple of months after the end of ‘Scholar’. Quaeryt is now married to Vaelora, younger sister of Bhayar, who is Lord of Telaryn. He is under strict orders to treat her with respect, which makes for a kind of running joke between them. She occasionally hints that some remark might be taken as disrespectful. Mr. Modesitt does a good job of portraying a happy marriage between persons of equal intelligence and good character who treat each other with respect and courtesy. This formula for a marriage is much needed in our time. As a confirmed bachelor, I know all about these things.
Anyway, Quaeryt is still stuck in the cold northern province of Tilbor but now has the high rank of Princeps, a sort of chief executive to the Governor. Not long after he has settled into the new job, there is a national disaster and things change. A volcano erupts and parts of the southern city of Extela are covered in ash and lava. Lord Bhayar needs someone he can trust on the spot, especially as the nasty neighbours will probably take this opportunity to invade while times are bad. Quaeryt and his wife head south with a regiment to sort things out in Extela. He soon finds that his biggest problem will be the High Holders, the very wealthy landed nobility. They have flour and other foodstuffs for sale but are holding out for high prices while people starve. A more minor problem for Quaeryt is that he has to stand in as a chorister for the Nameless and give homilies. The Nameless is Modesitt’s version of God in ‘The Imager Portfolio’. Quaeryt is not at all sure there really is a Nameless and feels uncomfortable acting as a priest but does it because the men need it in troubled times. These two propositions, that very rich people are too greedy and there is no God, might dent Modesitt’s popularity in his homeland
Oddly, perhaps, no particular connection is made in the books between the Nameless and the Pharsi. The latter are a separate race mingled in with society as a whole but sometimes persecuted. They are very intelligent, work hard and tend to do well in business. Quaeryt has Pharsi blood, as does his wife. It is hinted that Pharsi genes are more likely to produce an imager. Pharsi women are sometimes given to having visions of future events. Vaelora, Quaeryt’s wife, has them very occasionally.
Modesitt is interested in the day-to-day realities of life. His dashing heroes notice if the porch has been swept and the shutters are on straight when assessing a person. Order is not only important in the Saga of Recluce, it’s important in all his works as a sign of worthiness. On arrival in Extela, one of the first thing’s Quaeryt does is have the paperwork sorted out in order to get things organised. This comes even before reviving the civic patrol to keep the peace. ‘Conan strode pantherishly across the room: ‘Fetch the purchase ledger clerk,’ he growled’ is not a line that Robert E. Howard ever wrote. It just goes to show that fantasy comes in many guises and this is not the worst. It’s hard to sit down and read one of Modesitt’s books if you haven’t washed the dishes, made the bed and paid all those bills on the mantelpiece. He makes you feel guilty about not being efficient. You feel you might be a villain in one of his stories or at least someone upon whom the hero could not rely.
I found ‘Princeps’ better than ‘Scholar’ because the first prequel seemed to hit a slow patch in the middle and this one did not. In fact, the middle bit where Quaeryt is struggling to govern a province was the best part. The last third rattles to a satisfactory conclusion but I won’t give away the plot. All in all, a very enjoyable read and there’s a lot more for Quaeryt to do before the position of imagers gets anywhere close to that which they have attained in the first three books of the Portfolio. So more prequels to come, which is good news for fans.
(pub: TOR/Forge. 496 page hardback. Price: $27.99 (US), $31.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3095-6)