Imager is the first book in the IMAGER PORTFOLIO, the newest fantasy series by the incredibly prolific L. E. Modesitt Jr. I usually enjoy the author’s work very much, and Imager was no exception, despite the fact that it’s so recognizably L. E. Modesitt Jr.’s work that it verges on the predictable. I’m actually sure that some Modesitt fans could predict the early part of this novel’s plot just by looking at the included map: hmmm… looks like a city with a bunch of artist studio’s, and in the center there’s something called “Imager’s Isle”… so maybe we have yet another artisan (see:The Magic of Recluce) who discovers he has some strange power and ends up in a magical training organization of some sort? Bingo: Rhenntyl, a typically cerebral and driven Modesitt protagonist, is a struggling journeyman portrait artist who gradually begins to realize that he has imaging talent.
However, reducing the author’s work to such simple patterns is unfair. L. E. Modesitt Jr. displays his usual care and love of detail in the world-building — so much detail that this book will probably be too slow for some readers. However, if you can appreciate someone who takes the time to describe a fantasy world in such detail that it almost seems real, Modesitt’s work should be perfect for you. In Imager, the fantasy world is unusual in that it’s set in an era somewhere between Renaissance and Enlightenment, rather than the standard medieval period: society is still heavily class-based, with land-owning High Holders, a wealthy merchant class, several established artisan guilds, and the lower-class “taudis,” but at the same time it appears that some social upheaval may be on the horizon, with at least one High Holder agitating for women’s rights and a more democratic election process for the ruling Council. Interestingly, there are also some technologies that deviate from the standard fantasy pattern, such as railroads, fire arms and even the beginnings of Industrial Revolution-style devices such as automated weaving looms. On top of all of this, there’s the Collegium Imago: a secretive organization of “imagers” that combines aspects of a university, military organization and intelligence service. L. E. Modesitt Jr. introduces all these elements gradually throughout the story, dropping hints here and there rather than resorting to info-dumps, so that the reader slowly gathers a clear picture of this very interesting society.
As usual, there are extensive meditations on the ethics of the protagonist’s actions, as well as different types of governments and religions, showing (as always with L. E. Modesitt Jr.) various shades of gray. While the prose displays the author’s recognizably dry style, the dialogue is often filled with subtlety and understated humor. The magic system appears very simplistic at first, but there are hints that more detail is hidden below the surface. That actually applies to other aspects of the book, including the world-building: while the entire novel is set in the capital city of l’Excelsis, there are many references to other countries and cities, suggesting that future novels in the IMAGER PORTFOLIO will broaden the scope of the story. (Side note: unfortunately the book only includes a map of l’Excelsis, while it would have benefited from a map of the rest of the world. Several other countries are mentioned in the novel, and at times I found it hard to visualize where they were in relation to each other.)
As the first book in a new series, this is very clearly a set-up novel, and some readers may find the almost stolid pacing of Rhenntyl’s early progress through the Collegium’s hierarchy a bit dull. However, the book does have a satisfying ending that at the same time leaves many plot elements intriguingly open. In short, I’m much more interested in reading book 2 of this series (Imager’s Challenge, due out in October 2009 from Tor) than I was after the first book of Modesitt’s last fantasy series, the COREAN CHRONICLES, which I took a break from after book 3.
Imager is a promising start to the IMAGER PORTFOLIO, recommended for fans of L. E. Modesitt Jr. as well as for people who aren’t familiar with the author, because it’s a solid example of the author’s style and a great way to sample the work of one of fantasy’s most prolific and talented writers.
Imager is the beginning of the new Imager Portfolio series by L.E. Modesitt Jr. Set in a different world than The Saga of Recluce, one still feels the same vibe. In fact, there are several parallels to the Recluce books, and if you’re a Modesitt fan, that’s not a bad thing.
Rhennthyl is an aspiring artist who grew up in a merchant family. He is intelligent, motivated, and well-read, but feels unsuited for following in the footsteps of his father, so we see him transformed from talented painter to gifted wielder of the magic of Imaging. Imaging is the ability to use mental powers to copy or modify physical things — creating refined metal from raw ore, for example. Most of the novel’s plot concerns Rhenn’s move into the Imager guild and his education and eventual employment as an Imager.
One of Modesitt’s greatest strengths is his world-building, and Imager is no exception. The nation and city that Rhenn lives in will feel very familiar to fantasy readers and Modesitt fans in particular. I felt like I was walking around with the Recluce characters. The setting also gives Modesitt the opportunity to soapbox about the benefits of diversity in representational government.
The female characters in the male-dominated world are typical Modesitt. They are supremely competent, highly intelligent, and are more than a match for their male counterparts. Again, for Modesitt this is well-trod ground.
I read Imager in under 12 hours because it’s truly a fun read. The story grows and changes rapidly as Rhenn goes through a lot of personal changes. This doesn’t feel contrived, but is often the result of well-orchestrated turns in the plot. The magic system in Imager is intriguing, and Modesitt gives us a number of fascinating displays of its potential. It’s magic alright, but there are rules and complications that preclude some of the nonsense that fantasy sometimes delivers.
If you are a fan of solid, sequential fantasy, then Imager should be right up your alley. It’s not your epic, highly stylized fantasy, but Modesitt stays rooted in the common-sense approach to world building that gives us real characters, real events, and real political themes to fill in the blanks. The rise of a middle-class kid to greatness — always a fun theme — is still a plot that keeps the pages turning.