Imager by LE Modesitt Jr

Imager book cover
Rating 7.6/10
Heavy on characters with a strong sense of morality.

I've always like Modesitt's books. The Recluce Saga, The Spellsong Saga, and The Corean Chronicles have always stood out as unique in their style of fantasy writing compared to contemporary authors like Feist, Eddings, Wurts, Donaldson etc.… The reason for this is that each book has been strongly imbued with social and political philosophy. They are heavy on characters with a strong sense of morality; each book is ponderous with action, onerous on observation, careful on justification.

I expected more of the same picking up this new series (albeit nearly a decade after this first book was penned). Indeed it was, but somehow the lead character of Rhennthyl just doesn't match the likeability of Recluce's Lerris or Cerryl; nor is he as strong as Corus' Alucius.

The magical theme of "Imager" draws on the "natural ability to create magic" like his other worlds; but this one manifests through images - the creation of and skill in portraying such images.

'Imager' is the story of Rhennthyl, a young man who displays a powerful magical ability; after a false dawn as a portraitist he is taken under the wing of a harsh mentor, Master Dichartyn, at the Imager Isle where he spends his time either training physically or in the Imager arts, learning about the geopolitics of both his position and the country of Solidar, or wooing the exotic Seliora (vaguely possessed of farsight).

The book is all about Rhenn's education, which gives Modesitt time to indulge in his favourite literary pastime of philosophizing to his captive reader. There are dozens of heavy-weight statements in most chapters. For example:
"what people will pay for has no relation to its true value"
"hope is always an expectation beyond anticipated reality"
"be careful of any situation that you have to reason through logically, because if you have to work to reason it out, your probably missing something."
"lack of praise and recognition can turn them into twisted souls"
"life is always about power. When men or nations talk about honour, what they mean is how others perceive their power."
The list is endless. The examples are humanistic examples, the geo-political ones are even drier.

The other topic that is a Modesitt habit is his liberal need to talk about food. We get minutiae of meals in a way that is almost Robert Jordan-esque. Again, dozens of examples per chapter but you get the gist from this:
"fresh thin gourd strips, steamed, in pasta with a cream sauce, but again, a light one. Then there were the venison tenderloins, marinated in some liquor diluted with what I thought might be Sanietra, and braised, served with boiled and fried dark rice with an naranje sauce.".
It's all literary and actual "filling". The book would be 50 pages lighter if we lost all the unnecessary culinary descriptions.

The plot centres around Rhenn's growing powers and his falling out with a powerful Lord after he renders his bullying son permanently blind. Like all matters in Modesitt's books, actions always have consequences and a domino effect begins to build. The novel follows the deterministic course of self-justification for Rhenn's genocide of a lineage with associated retainers, something that sits uneasily with the strictures of the book. Rhenn is far too absolutist in his self-belief in his perfect morality. There is no grey and anyone he perceives to be a threat is casually murdered after much introspection and agonizing. What does stand out is that he (like all the other Modesitt characters) never seem to suffer any  psychological trauma from their actions. They have no passion. The author tries to moderate this with the courting of the fiery, beautiful Seliora, but, like Cruise and McGillis in Top Gun, there is no real spark for the reader to empathise with. This is mainly due to the author's language when immersed in a scene that cries out for illogical, emotive, impulsive action. He can't deliver it. Every sentence is constructed logically, planned, careful, stoic. Love is not like that.

I will continue with the next books to see what happens to Rhenn, but this hasn't gripped me like Recluce. Indeed, the image I am left with on closing the pagers of this book is a line from Modesitt himself:
"Don't you know that the greatest fear of any artist. It's not the fear of death, but the fear of being forced to admit someone else is better." Indeed, Mr Modesitt. Of whom would your own humility force you to admit is better than you?
travelswithadiplomat, 7/10

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Imager is the story of a young portraiturist, Rhennthyl, struggling through life. He shows great potential while painting but isn’t allowed to prosper due to the strict rules of his guild. One day, when he tries to paint someone’s eyes he notices that he could’ve painted them perfectly if only he had a certain colour. Sadly enough that colour (Imager’s green) is extremely expensive and thus unavailable to a simple journeyman. When he looks back to his canvas in resignation something weird had happened, the eyes were captured on canvas. Correctly.

 Welcome to the world of Imagers, where your mind can decide what is, and what is not. In Terahnar, some people are born with a rare gift. The gift of Imaging. Imaging is the art of changing reality in small ways. Conjuring a pen from nowhere, a blotch of ink to get that art piece just right. Or even replace the contents of that glass of juice with something a little less benevolent. In short, Imagers have a lot of potential and thus are commonly feared by normal people. In Solidar, where Rhennthyl lives, the Imagers have their own guild, the Collegium, and they follow strict rules to keep everyone at peace. The severe punishments carried out by the guild on acts like using Imaging for you own gain or to harm another make sure that the government of Solidar allows the Imagers to remain. Of course, arrangements like providing certain rare ores and other expensive materials might have something to do with that too.

When Rhennthyl joins the Collegium he gets trained at a rapid pace. While most people discover their Imaging talent before becoming an apprentice, Rhennthyl discovered his a lot later, several years in his training to become a master portraiturist. Therefore he has a lot of catching up to do, and so from sunrise to sundown he gets private lessons in all sorts of subjects. While exercising they notice that Rhennthyl has remarkable talent and he progresses through the ranks at a rapid pace. Especially his background is a great help in comprehending how Imaging works, since Imaging is an art of its own. When his private lessons even continue after he caught up with his peers, he finds out that he’s being trained for more than being a ‘casual’ Imager.

I’ll leave the story at that, and go on to the more important parts of the book. What I really liked is that the author is very wise, and provides a constant stream of expressions that make you think. For instance every chapter starts with an almost philosophical remark and most of the time the chapter illustrates that remark. Since a chapter is usually only about five pages that makes for a lot of remarks that make you think! Also, a large part of Rhenn’s training consists of both political and philosophical subjects, resulting in brain-teasing lessons not only for Rhenn but for you as well, if you so choose. Of course, you can just let all that pass by and continue with the story but if you’re a bit into philosophy it’s just great to think about everything before going on! At first the remarks are of a more artistic nature since it’s about his life as a journeyman and as his life changes, so does the nature of the remarks. Some examples are “The world and its parts are as they are; accuracy is a term man applies to his small creations”, “Love is both a name and an act; too often the name triumphs”, and “Perfection can lead to great imperfection”. Throughout the story, Rhenn visits services. They provide a very interesting religion and especially the homilies are well thought-out. They’re all connected to how we perceive things, and how that can lead us to fallacies.

The world and its inhabitants are realistic and well thought-out, and so is the Imaging-system. Art and perception are the major components of the story, while subtlety and secrecy gain in importance as it progresses. And of course, a tinge of love is never absent. It’s remarkable how a fast-paced story and brain teasers are combined.
Koen Peters, 8.1/10

This Imager book review was written by and Koen Peters

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