‘Scholar’, the fourth book in ‘The Imager Portfolio’, opens with the furniture of fantasy: a cast list and a map. The other genre that needs this at times is the historical novel, with which indeed Modesitt’s work has much in common. The best historical novels, for my money, deal with the doings of leaders and states, war and generals. Fantasy can do this, too, but they are made up states and made-up characters. That gives you a lot more leeway for fun.
The key made-up states here are the three which fill the continent of Lydar: Bovaria, Telaryn and Antiago. Our hero, Quaeryt the scholar, is a friend of Bhayar, the ruler of Teralyn. Both are young men but Bhayar is the lord so Quaeryt treats him with due discretion and care. Ten years before the book begins, Bhayar’s father had conquered Tilbor to the north and made it part of his domain, but it takes too many soldiers to hold it which leaves the rest of Teralyn vulnerable to rival state, Bovaria. Quaeryt has noticed that his lord soon tires of people who are not useful so he volunteers to go to Tilbor to see how the situation might be improved. He sets sail on a merchant vessel, comfortable with this mode of travel because he spent six years at sea before settling down to be a scholar.
Quaeryt is an Imager, which is worth explaining for those who have not read the other books. An Imager can use the power of his mind to create objects, apparently from nothing. In fact, the atoms and molecules are drawn from the surroundings so, for example, Quaeryt can ’image’ a copper coin if the stones around contain enough copper. He can also image things at a distance and effectively move things by imaging. So if he has a piece of wood, he can image it into an attacker’s brain, killing him instantly. He can also image shields out of the air and image concealment shields to make himself invisible. It’s a slightly far-fetched stretch of the ability but as this is fantasy, can be forgiven, especially as it gets the hero out of several tight corners. This book is a prequel to the first three books in ‘The Imager Portfolio’ and takes place at a time in which Imagers, when spotted, are usually lynched. Quaeryt keeps his super-powers secret but hopes, somehow, to improve the position of those with the talent in his society.
It would be unfair to give away more of the plot. Suffice to say that after some adventures on land and sea, Quaeryt makes it to Tilbor and starts his mission for Lord Bhayar. The governor of the province is a very capable man who runs a formidable, well-disciplined army but there are several worrying anomalies in the local situation, not least the position of the local scholars. Quaeryt has to use all his talents and intelligence to survive in the face of several trials.
There is a lot of political intrigue, along with several meditations on how societies work and the duties and faults of those who hold power. There is also the religion of the Nameless, a monotheist fantasy substitute for those monotheist religions which are, perhaps, a civilising influence on our own society. In fact, the Nameless doesn’t quite fit as a parallel for God because the concept of ‘naming’ as a bad thing is quite abstract. Our hero – and by extension the author, presumably – are by no means anti-religious but find it hard to believe in a Supreme Being. However, Quaeryt does accept that the tenets of the Nameless are good and adheres to them, mostly.
This is a typical Modesitt fantasy and if you like them – I do – it will no doubt suit. Like some others, it holds your interest at the start, flags a bit in the middle and then gallops to a satisfying conclusion. Like the others, it runs about 500 pages long. The slump in the middle seems to indicate that this is perhaps 100 pages too long and if I were Modesitt’s editor, I might suggest a bit of cutting to make it all go faster. On the other hand, his whole technique is based on slow, precise world-building. His publisher is presumably content with his sales and must surely be content with his vast output so who am I to quibble? To be fair, the satisfactory conclusion makes you glad enough of the reading experience that you can forgive the slow middle bit. I look forward to reading ‘Princeps’, the next book in the sequence.
(pub: TOR/Forge. 672 page hardback. Price: £21.30 (UK) $27.99 (US), $31.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-7653-3095-6)