Antiagon Fire is the fourth book in L.E. Modesitt Jr’s IMAGER PORTFOLIO series about Quaeryt the scholar (it’s the seventh book in the entire series). The twists and turns of Quaeryt’s life have been momentous as befits a fantasy epic, but have often dealt with very mundane aspects of life. In this installment, Modesitt really reaches deep into the realm of political motivations and asks us to consider whether and when might really does make right.
After the traumatic conclusion to the war with Bovaria and the near death of Quaeryt, there was really no way of knowing what would come next. The continent of Lydar has consisted of many different nations for a long time and might have remained that way if not for the war. Quaeryt’s brother-in-law Bhayar has seized the opportunity to unify two nations under his rule and that leaves only two other nations with which to contend.
Quaeryt’s pharsi heritage makes him the ideal candidate to treat with the governing body of the nation of Khel which is peopled mostly by ethnic Pharsi. The recent war of conquest by Bovaria has left them very weak as a country and ripe pickings for a number of less savory elements ranging from bandits to predatory traders. When a nation is weak and is only a shell in which there is no stability or control, what does a neighboring ruler do? Bhayar has difficult decisions to make.
Also neighboring the recently conquered Bovaria is Antiago, a relatively small sea-faring country that protects itself with Antiagon Fire, a unique weapon that shoots projectiles filled with water-resistant chemicals that burn just about everything. In an almost Korean peninsula-esque cease fire with Bovaria, Antiago still committed large troop formations to support Bovaria in their defense against Telaryn. Aliaro, the Autarch of Antiago, was married to Bhayar’s sister, but when she died in childbirth he quickly moved on to a new spouse. This disrespect for Bhayar’s family has not been forgotten, so Antiago is viewed as another threat.
Into this chaotic continent Quaeryt is sent to negotiate a peaceful surrender with one nation while still fretting about how to cope with the threat posed by the other. His skills are called on again and again to help him accomplish his mission and to assist the other leaders he respects in prospering. The long-standing contention that Quaeryt feels between himself and some of the more politically connected military staff is a constant reminder that his failure would be exploited.
The theme of Antiagon Fire is the necessity of violence. When is a nation justified in acting aggressively toward another? Does an attack by one nation constitute a reason for conquest by the other? Are there situations where leaving a relatively non-threatening but otherwise weak nation in peace is actually more of a threat to long-term peace? Does a nation who is actively aggressive against another nation through lesser provocations require military action? When can diplomacy lead to greater results than military action? All these questions bounce back and forth as the political and military situation evolves from immediate post-conflict tension to plans for a long-term peaceful future.
Antiagon Fire succeeds on a number of levels. Quaeryt remains a self-sacrificing hero, but his willingness to make hard choices in order to have a future that matters is pretty cool. The compelling sense of a mission not complete permeates the book. Quaerty will not give in to small challenges, but he keeps going in spite of risks. It makes for interesting introspection. If this is the end of the story with Quaeryt, then it has been quite a ride. It has not always been the most exciting story, but it has truly been a motivating study of what one gifted man can do to shape the future.