I will be the first to admit that I do not much care for the fantasy genre (The Lord of the Rings and the Thomas Covenant series don’t count, being more of a recasting of myth). There are some writers, however, that are so able elevate a story from the contrived to a compelling alternative reality. Modesitt is in such company.
Imager covers the early career of one Rhennthyl, the son of prosperous wool manufacturer from the city of L’Excelsis in the country of Solidar. Modesitt very quickly establishes that this setting is not in some mythical but undefined past or a place with no real history at all. Solidar and its neighboring states have a definite history and Rhennthyl’s time feels very much like that surrounding the thirty years war of Europe. Solidar itself is governed by a Council divided by between various guilds and large land owners. Even the technology feels as if it were on the cusp of the industrial revolution (the sole exception here would be that steam railways seem to have been well established, but that is not much of a stretch). Modesitt manages to build this in such a way that it is utterly convincing and compelling and yet does not leave one at sea with culture shock. What sets Rhennthyl’s world apart from ours is the existence of two groups the Pharsi and Imagers. The Pharsi are a separate ethnic group that seems to have been long settled in Solidar, and some of whom have the gift of second sight. Imagersare more widely dispersed, and have the rare talent to produce that which they can clearly imagine. This talent could well put any reader off as mere magic, but while Modesitt does not explain imaging (given the general state of knowledge available to Rhennthyl’s people, one cannot expect it), it is clear that it is taken a natural and physical phenomena and its practitioners do not invoke some mystical underpinning. Indeed Rhennthyl lives in a skeptical age, for while Solidar and it neighboring states each have established religions, a fair number of its citizens do not take them too seriously. Imagers and the Pharsi, are taken seriously. The Pharsi are discriminated against as exotic outsiders and Imagers are universally distrusted and feared, as leapers were feared in medieval times. It does not take much to see that Rhennthyl is rather taken with the Pharsi.
As mentioned earlier, Rhennthyl is from a well-to-do family, a member of what may someday be the middle class. To his father’s displeasure, Rhennthyl does not wish to go into the family business, but wishes to become an artist (specifically a portraitist—the camera having not been invented). Rhennthyl becomes apprenticed to a local master and shows great talent—perhaps too much talent. Advancement through the guilds of Europe was not solely on the basis of merit and it appears to be no different in Solidar. We shall never know whether Rhennthyl would have become a master portraitist. His career he is stopped short, first as a journeyman frustrated by his guild and then by an accident that kills his master. But was it an accident or the result his frustration and his latent and undisciplined imaging talents? Rhennthyl had had small hints before, but the accident convinces him that he may well have this cursed talent. Modesitt does a wonderful job of making the truth of this accident (if it indeed was accident) opaque and alternative explanations more than a little plausible.
Rhennthyl does his utmost to avoid becoming an imager, but no master will take him on as a journeyman. Frankly, they’d rather do without the competition. In time, desperation forces Rhennthyl to cast his lot with the Imagers, and the story really takes off. It would be easier to say what doesn’t follow. There’s political intrigue, mystery, romance, social upheavel, even a little philosophy. Let leave it that imaging is not mere conjuring and that Rhennthyl has more in common with CIA spooks than spectures.
Imager is the first of a promised series, The Imager Portfolio. I for one am looking forward to the next installment.
If Imager looks good, here are some other interesting Baker and Taylor Books. . .
- The Knights of the Cornerstone, by James P. Blaylock
Call Number: PS3552.L3966 K55 2008
- The Children of Húrin, by J. R. R. Tolkein, edited by Christopher Tolkein
Call Number: P6039.O32 N37 2007
- An Evil Guest, by Gene Wolf
Call Number: PS3573.O52 E95 2008