Thankfully, with a change in characters and timeframe, Modesitt has brought his world back to life somewhat. It doesn’t hurt that there’s more action (at the start), and less time for the endless introspection and quotidian detail that bogged down the prior books in the series. This book takes place quite some time before those, so there’s an element of discovery as well – at least regarding imaging.
That discovery is something of a muddling factor as well, however. Quaeryt has imaging power, and people know and talk about imaging. Yet never once does it occur to anyone that Quaeryt’s astonishing success might have some magical power behind it.
Unfortunately, Modesitt also falls back on the repetitive small talk that has brought down many of his most recent books. (And I’m a little afraid that when I go back to his earlier ones, it will have been there all along.) For example, Quaeryt occasionally fills in as chorister (which in this book essentially means priest) and does well. It feels like virtually every character in the book – central or peripheral – at some point comes by to say, ‘You should be a chorister.’ To which Quaeryt inevitably responds that he’s a scholar, but there are similarities, or sometimes gives the canned history of his childhood. I don’t know how many times I read this same exchange, but it was at least twenty times too many.
Modesitt also gives us much of the content of Quaeryt and other choristers’ homilies about the nameless and they are vague to the point of empty. If the characters are deriving wisdom from them, they’re seeing something I’m not. That would be fine – natural filler – if only we didn’t have to hear the homilies (and about them) so very often.
All that said, this is a stronger book than the preceding two. It’s not a book likely to draw in new Modesitt fans, but for existing ones, it’s readable, and far less of a slog than the more recent ones have been. While apparently the start of a five book arc, Modesitt seems to have had different plans for this book, since it ends a bit abruptly, and with a not-too-credible visitation.
Modesitt makes an effort to introduce some ethnic tension that was also alluded to in the prior books, but it never really develops, and over four books, we still haven’t really hard why there’s any tension – what is it about the Pharsi that people dislike? I’m also disheartened by the world’s pervasive sexism – why can’t we have new vulnerable groups, at least – with comments about ‘letting’ a wife speak her mind, or implying that killing a female soldier is worse than killing a male, or suggesting that attractive women aren’t bright (and vice versa).
Quaeryt himself has fairly flexible morals. Much like Rhen in the previous books, he’s extremely arrogant, and never considers whether maybe his decision to kill people might be a mistake, preferring to believe that his hand was forced. It seldom is.
All in all, a better book than its predecessor, but that’s a low bar.