I’ve found recent (and even not so recent) Modesitt books to be a slog, and certainly books #2 and 3 in this series felt interminable. Happily the pace picked up again with book #4, which took us back into the past of the world. Happily again, this book keeps that pace. It has many of the same irritating stumbling blocks as Modesitt’s recent books, but simply more happens in this one. By the standards of earlier books in the series, this moves at a breakneck pace.
It’s also interesting because there’s more magic system discovery in the book, continuing a trend from book #4. One ability (the ability to image attitude) is not discovered, and seemingly comes out of left field, without even the faintest logical tie to the magic system that’s being developed. But our protagonist legitimately investigates and discovers other aspects of imaging in a reasonably methodical and interesting way. (Though what he discovers reminds me very strongly of late Recluce books.) There’s also far less of the vague philosophy of the Nameless in the book, if only because Quaeryt is so busy being expert at things he acts modest about.
He also continues his low moral course, trusting himself with power over other’s lives without much compunction. His wife, the king’s sister, applauds him for it, and pretty much everyone in the book seems to take the attitude that well, bad people need to be punished, regardless of the law. Quaeryt comes right and and says this a few times. Happily, in this book Modesitt does take a least a little time to lay foundations for the character’s future character development, for good or ill. It’s certainly not at the heart of the book, and it’s pretty thinly staged, but at least there’s an effort that was largely absent in the previous book.
The fact that Quaeryt is an imager, but not known to be one is at the heart of the book, a pretence that is increasingly untenable and incredible – imagers are widely known, yet virtually no one suspects Quaeryt of powers – as the book progresses. Thankfully, Modesitt finally acknowledges this and drops the charade at least somewhat, late in the book. On the minus side, Quaeryt does have the same repetitive interaction with his wife over and over, in which one of them (usually him) does something completely innocent and inoffensive, and the other takes umbrage, but magnanimously lets it go … this time. That and, of course, the repeated conversations with supporting actors. Thankfully, in this book fewer of them are about how surprising it is that a scholar is so good at anything at all. Though there is quite a lot about clothing color. In this rigid world, all scholars always wear brown and brown only. Clothing color is an utterly reliable indicator of class and societal role.
Modesitt unfortunately continues his one-dimensional treatment of the society’s underclass, the Pharsi. Always discriminated against (for no clear reason), they dare to defend themselves, and Quaeryt (who is himself Pharsi) protects them and only them. It’s implied, for example, that Pharsi women are not to be molested by the soldiers. Other women, apparently are fair game. And Pharsi seem to be genetically suited to commerce. Overall, I found it grating, and only the fact that the Pharsi hold the key to a mystery redeems their role in the story.
While not up to Modesitt’s best, the series is at least back to pleasurable reading.