I liked the first book in this series, Imager, and on the strength of that, bought many of the rest in one go. At the time, my theory was that Modesitt was consistent within a series, so if the first book was good, the rest would be as well. That was before I’d delved into the latest Recluce books (many of which I also bought in one go), and found that the spell had broken. I’ve found the latest Recluce books – about a mage turned reluctant law enforcer – to be a hard slog. I was disappointed, then, to find that in this second Imager book Rhenn is a mage turned reluctant law enforcer. It’s not as tedious as the recent Recluce books, but it’s very similar – an almost diary-like recounting of quotidian events, buffered with vague, portentous conversation.
Common across many of Modesitt’s books is the desire and need of the protagonists to be schooled by wise elders who make broad statements which the protagonist then examines at length for the treasure they must contain. In Recluce, I previously found it charming. Now, it’s wearing on me. There’s not a conversation that goes by in which Rhenn doesn’t modestly accept correction from friends and acquaintances. Yet, in this book, that humble acceptance is accompanied by casuistry that I found increasingly hard to swallow, but Rhenn apparently found to his taste. The performative humility is especially difficult in that his actions are pretty selfish and bloodthirsty, especially on trivial matters. I get the impression (esp. looking at the following titles) that the series is meant to show how a well-meaning young man becomes a tyrant (or at least a lord). I have some sympathy with and interest in that idea; I’ve written a similar book myself. But in Imager’s Challenge, we see only the surface. We get painfully repetitive introspection and self-examination, but the actual consideration of cause and effect, cost and benefit, get short shrift. A wise person says “It should be so,” and Rhenn’s main thoughts are “Must it be so? I guess it must. It must be so. It shall be so.” and moves on to the next ethical puddle. Of course, only friends and acquaintances get this moral subservience. Enemies, as is well known, are evil and deserve no consideration; they may be brutally hurt or killed without consequence or concern, especially if they’re not sufficiently deferential (or if they’re not evil, but just happen to be near bad people). The ends justify any means, however extreme, and Rhenn readily forgives himself for any unpleasant outcomes.
It’s certainly possible that the politics/ethics of the book colored my view because they went against the grain for me (they certainly did). But it’s the superficiality of it that bothered me most. Rhennthyl is presented as thoughtful but brash, and he certainly worries a lot, but he doesn’t do much actual thinking. Only his conclusions are (heavily) underlined. In short, I found the book tedious and slow going. Since the series is evidently focused entirely on Rhenn and his moral compromises, I’m not eager to dive into the rest.
There’s also, as seems more common in Modesitt’s books, a lot of discussion of menus. It’s mostly generic – “fowl” rather than any particular bird – but you hear about lots of the meals. I didn’t find it interesting.