In a pattern that’s by now familiar for L.E. Modesitt Jr., Scholar marks a new beginning in the IMAGER PORTFOLIO series. The book is set several hundred years before the events portrayed in the three “Rhentyll” novels Imager, Imager’s Challenge, and Imager’s Intrigue. Because of this, Scholar shares no characters with the earlier novels in the series and can be read separately. However, if you haven’t read the Rhentyll novels yet and are in the mood for some good, thoughtful fantasy, I still recommend reading them first, just so you can see the events of the new novel in the broader historical context L.E. Modesitt Jr. likes to build for his fantasy worlds.
Scholar is set in a time when Solidar hasn’t been unified as one country yet. Rather than the stable and dominant realm we see in the Rhentyll novels, the continent of Lydar is still split up into separate countries that are fighting for dominance. Bhayar, the young ruler of Telaryn, is trying to figure out why the province of Tilbor, conquered a decade ago by his father, still needs such a large armed presence to remain peaceful. He sends his friend Quaeryt to Tilbor to investigate and report back on the possibility of reducing the size of the province’s standing army.
Quaeryt, the main character of the novel, is a scholar. He’s also an imager, but he keeps his imaging ability mostly secret because, in this period before the Collegium Imago, imagers are still feared and frequently shunned. Like Rhentyll from the IMAGER PORTFOLIO’s earlier novels, he is a very recognizable L.E. Modesitt Jr. protagonist: intelligent, quiet, cautious but able to take decisive and sometimes surprising action when necessary. His name seems to mean something like “inquisitive” in one of this world’s languages, which is appropriate given his habit of asking incisive questions that frequently make people uncomfortable.
Quaeryt travels to Tilbor, having several adventures along the way. Once he arrives, he begins to investigate the local situation and the possible reasons that such a large military presence is still needed there, more than a decade after its conquest. He becomes part of life in the military structure in Tilbor, reports to his superiors, strikes up friendships, enjoys meals, and does extensive research into the history of Tilbor. The result is a novel that’s so instantly recognizable as an L.E. Modesitt Jr. story that it verges on the predictable, but as always it’s also full of interesting, well-drawn characters and fascinating world-building, making it well worth your time.
One difference between Quaeryt and Rhentyll, the protagonist of the first three novels in the Imager Portfolio, is that Quaeryt, at least in this book, feels like a more stable character. Rhenn goes through a huge evolution: he starts a whole new life, learns a new profession, gradually becomes stronger and more important. Rhenn’s growth as a character is a big part of what made the first three Imager novels so enjoyable right from the start. By contrast, Quaeryt seems to have gone through his formative period well before the start of Scholar. He now appears as an already complete character who doesn’t change all that much throughout this story, aside from learning some new imaging skills. As a result, the emphasis here is much more firmly on plot than on character development, whereas the previous three novels struck a balance between the two. To be fair, this is only the first novel in what looks to be planned as a second sub-series of four books in the IMAGER PORTFOLIO. There are indications that Quaeryt’s life is going to change again in the next novel, so there’s a good chance that we’ll see much more character growth in Princeps (May 2012) and Subcommander (planned for 2013).
Calling Scholar a prequel is technically correct but, given the author’s penchant for exploring the historical background of his fantasy worlds in great detail, it doesn’t tell the whole story. This is really a separate novel that happens to be set in the same world as, but several centuries before the first three books in the IMAGER PORTFOLIO, allowing L.E. Modesitt Jr. to add considerable depth to this fantasy universe and place the events of the earlier novels in a solid historical context. Despite running along well-established patterns, this is another enjoyable novel by one of the genre’s most reliable and prolific authors.
The IMAGER PORTFOLIO so far has followed one character, Rhennthyl, in one city, L’Excelsis. In Scholar, L.E. Modesitt Jr. takes us back to an earlier time period in the IMAGER universe. But while we follow a new character this time, Scholar is classic Modesitt writing, detailing the protagonist’s personal life and career progression set against a backdrop of political and/or military difficulty.
Quaeryt is a Scholar of modest means. A Scholar, in this world, is a professional researcher/educator/adviser and the prestige of this career varies greatly from town to town. Scholars, for the most part, live in communal buildings reminiscent of monasteries, but they are worldly enough that the comparison isn’t a perfect fit. Quaeryt is an orphan who was raised by Scholars and then went to sea for a few years, before realizing that his inquisitive mind is better suited to learning and teaching than working on a cargo ship.
As is often true of Modesitt’s protagonists, Quaeryt is talented in many areas. One of these is imaging, a mental ability that ranges from projecting emotion to manipulating matter on a seemingly atomic level. Since Scholar takes place in the past relative to the other IMAGER books, Quaeryt has very little in the way of practical instruction to draw upon. The resultant trial and error, and the success that it breeds in Quaeryt’s life, is par for the course in a Modesitt book but remains interesting.
Quaeryt shares an unusual and combative friendship with Bhayar, the ruler of Telaryn. Quaeryt is an adviser to Bhayar and always maintains the correct level of deference, but refuses to curry favor by merely telling Bhayar what he wants to hear. Quaeryt is sent on a mission for Bhayar to establish, through his skills as a Scholar, the reasons that a province conquered by Bhayar’s father has remained so difficult to administer. Tilbor is far away from the capital city of Solis, and even the trip there will be fraught with danger. This begins Quaeryt’s journey on behalf of the ruler — and also his journey of self-discovery.
Scholar is a good book for a number of reasons. First off, it’s a Modesitt fantasy novel, so his well-honed world-building skills, his believable characters, and his established formula of the main character’s learning and growth are all enjoyable. Quaeryt is no great departure from Modesitt’s previous heroes. What is really remarkable about Scholar is the principal villain. Rescalyn is the governor of Tilbor on behalf of Bhayar, and he is a brilliant character. His strategy for growing a successful army and for feeding the distant government only the information he wants them to know, and his willingness to lead from the front in combat, are admirable. He is almost heroic in how great a leader he is. The conflict between Rescalyn and Quaeryt is tragic, because it is necessary but such a waste, too.
Scholar is a solid addition to Modesitt’s work. It’s good, but not awesome. The political maneuvering and the supporting cast are some of Modesitt’s best yet. The most brilliant aspects will become apparent after you’ve finished, and you’ll probably find yourself looking back and thinking, “Wow, that was cool!”