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Monday, March 16, 2009

“Imager” by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (Reviewed by Robert Thompson)

Read An Excerpt HERE

AUTHOR INFORMATION: L.E. Modesitt, Jr. is the bestselling science fiction/fantasy author of over fifty novels including The Saga of Recluce, The Corean Chronicles, and the Spellsong Cycle. He is also the author of several nonfiction books and numerous short fiction. “Imager” is the first book in the author’s new Imager Portfolio fantasy series.

PLOT SUMMARY: Although Rhennthyl is the son of a leading wool merchant in L’Excelsis—the capital of Solidar, the most powerful nation on Terahnar—his passion lies with art and he has spent years as a journeyman portraiturist. Skilled and diligent enough to one day become a master portraiturist, Rhenn’s entire life is transformed in a single moment when his patron is killed in a fire, and Rhenn discovers he is an imager—one of the few in the entire world of Terahnar who can visualize things and make them real.

Now he must leave his family and join the Collegium of Imagisle where imagers live separately from the rest of society because of their abilities—which can be accidentally harmful to themselves and to others—and because they are both feared and vulnerable. In this new life, Rhenn trains in the art of imaging and discovers that all too many of the “truths” he knew were nothing of the sort. Every day brings a new threat to his life, including making a powerful enemy while righting a wrong, and becoming a target for assassination…

CLASSIFICATION:Imager” is a slow-moving, coming-of-age fantasy set in a European-influenced, industrial revolution-era world built on politics, commerce, and religion. Recommended for fans of Robin Hobb, Kate Elliott and J.V. Jones, and anyone who loves comprehensive world-building and characterization.

FORMAT/INFO: Page count is 432 pages divided over four Parts, a map, and seventy-two chapters. Each chapter is preceded by a few words of wisdom that apply to the contents of that chapter such as: “In art and in life, what is not portrayed can be as vital as what is.” Narration is in the first-person, exclusively via the protagonist Rhennthyl. “Imager” can be read as a standalone novel as it comes to a satisfactory stopping point, but the book is the first volume in the Imager Portfolio and features a number of unresolved threads. The sequel, “Imager’s Challenge”, is currently scheduled for publication in October/November 2009.

March 17, 2009 marks the North American Hardcover publication of “Imager” via
Tor Books. Cover art provided by Donato Giancola.

ANALYSIS: In the novels that I’ve read by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.—including The Corean Chronicles, The Spellsong Cycle, and a couple of Recluce volumes—I was consistently impressed by the depth and realism he brought to the world-building, characters, and magic system, while frustrated by the pacing and conventional plotting. With his new book, “Imager”, the author delivers more of the same—a fantasy that is at once impressive and frustrating…

On the positive side, the world-building is once again top-notch, emphasized by the incredible level of detail used to render Terahnar as a realistic setting including different types of governments, cultures, and religions such as the Nameless:

We do not name You, for naming is a presumption, and we would not presume upon the creator of all that was, is, and will be. We do not pray to You, nor ask favors or recognition from You, for requesting such asks You to favor us over others who are also your creations…

Even more impressive are the small things like having ten months (Ianus, Juyn) in a year, the days of the week with different names (Solayi, Samedi), time measured in glasses and quints, distance measured in milles and digits, original food & drinks like Dhuensa, plonk, and naranje cream sauce, and other minor details that add to the world’s believability and is a trademark of the author’s world-building.

The highlight of L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s world-building though is the magic system. In short, imaging is the unique ability to ‘change reality’. It’s an ability that is different for every imager from those who can only make copies of stationary objects to someone like Rhenn who can create shields that deflect bullets or kill a person without ever physically touching them. Of course, imaging is much more than a fancy power. It is also an ability that poses great risk to the user and those around them—so much so that married imagers are required to live on Imagisle and even sleep in separate beds! Imaging also requires great responsibility and Modesitt Jr. does a wonderful job of examining the dangers that imagers face—constantly feared by the world at large and being vastly outnumbered (one hundred thousand to one in Solidar alone)—and the role that imagers, depending on their rank (Primus, Secondus, Tertius, or Master), play in society: A role that involves not just learning how to control one’s abilities, but also, in the case of Rhenn, studying science, chemistry, law and philosophy. As interesting and well-developed as imaging is however, the magic system is not perfect with the author skimming over a few concepts that I thought deserved a better explanation including obdurates/malleables, emotion projecting, and how imaging draws from materials around an imager.

Characterization meanwhile is solid marked by a more than capable protagonist in Rhenn and a well-rounded supporting cast. The problem with Rhenn is that for all of his likeability, he possesses a rather dull personality with little charm or humor, and is not very emotional which is evident by the lack of remorse that he feels after killing a person, or the lack of passion/heat that he harbors for his lady love, Seliora. Another problem is that it’s hard to care for any of the characters in the book apart from Rhenn, and to a degree Seliora, so if readers are unable to connect with Rhenn, then they might find enjoying the book to be quite difficult.

Negatively, the plot in “Imager” is a fairly routine coming-of-age tale that begins with Rhenn as a youth and journeyman portraiturist, and follows him on his journey to Imagisle and his training at the Collegium. There are other subplots including political intrigue and religious/mercantile disputes among the nations of Solidar, Caenen, Ferrum & Jariola; the courtship between Rhenn and Seliora; and the mystery of young imagers being murdered; but for the most part, “Imager” concentrates on Rhenn discovering who he is as a person—his strengths and his weaknesses—and growing up. The main issue with the story, apart from its familiarity, is that it starts becoming repetitive towards the latter half of the novel with Rhenn fending off assassination attempts, meeting with Seliora and his family, and painting Master Poincaryt’s portrait so often, that it starts to feel like déjà vu.

As far as the pacing, “Imager” reminded me strongly of Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy with its slow tempo and lack of heart-pounding action, which I expect will turn off some readers. On the flipside though, I have to say that L.E. Modesitt, Jr.’s writing as a whole has really improved, enabling the novel to be quite enjoyable to read despite its deficiencies.

CONCLUSION: In the end, “Imager” is classic L.E. Modesitt, Jr., which can be viewed as a good and/or bad thing depending on how much you like the author’s work. Personally, in spite of the issues I had with the story, pacing, and to a certain extent the characters, I thought “Imager” was one of the best novels that I’ve read by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. so far, and I’m really looking forward to continuing Rhenn’s journey in the next Imager novel…


Jeff C said...

Robert...I agree with your review. I said many of the same sorta things in mine a couple of weeks ago. The big deal for me was how likeable the main character was. It did start slow, but once I took a liking to Rhenn, I was hooked. I also think its one of his best books (and I actually think it is his best, of the 8 or so I've read). I believe its a great book for a Modesitt newbie, and I too am really looking forward to book 2 this fall.

Robert said...

Thanks Jeff :) I can't say if Imager is one of the author's best books since I've read so few, but I would say it's the one I've probably enjoyed the most so far...

I wrote this review back in mid-February, so at that time I didn't see any other reviews for Imager, otherwise I would have linked them in the review. I'll be sure to check out yours shortly though!

Julie Soul said...

I've seen the massive slew of books by L.E. Modesitt, Jr. on the shelves. Which one would you recommend as a good starting point for someone unfamiliar with Modesitt's books? Thanks!

Jeff C said...

Soul Trekking...I know you weren't asking me..but I've read 5 of the Recluce books, and 3 of the Corean books, and I would say the new one, Imager, is the best place to start. Otherwise try Recluce first. Corean, for me, is my least favorite of the 3 series. I haven't read any of his sci-fi.

Robert said...

Thanks for answering that Jeff :) I would reply the same Soul Trekking. I know that the Recluse novels are considered the author's most popular and best works, but Imager possesses all of the qualities that L.E. Modesitt, Jr. are known for, backed by what I feel is a more intriguing setting and stronger writing. And if you enjoy "Imager" enough, I would then go back and try the Recluse novels...

Unknown said...

I did not realize the book is this "old." I picked up the book at the library and am really enjoying it. The world building is incredible. I love the little touches, such as his measurement of time (glasses) and the names of his days.

I have never read anything by this author and like one of the comments above, I think it would be a good book for a new Modesitt reader.


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