#CBR5 Maneuver #18 – Princeps
Profile: Fantasy, Political Fiction
After Action Report:
After reading both Scholar and Princeps, I honestly think I was wrong about Modesitt’s motivations behind abandoning the ‘present-day’ progression of his Imager Portfolio series. Pinceps is the second book in the Portfolio to follow Quaeryt, an imager that lived hundreds of years before the events of Imager. In my review of Quaeryt’s first novel, Scholar, I accused Modesitt of fighting off stagnation by radically shifting the setting and the protagonist. But now I’m beginning to think that he wrote a huge amount of backstory for the island nation of Solidar and was getting frustrated at being unable to use it in Rhennthyl’s storylines.
Princeps continues to flesh out the formation of Solidar, as the restless city-states of the continent are gearing up for full-fledged war. But the primary focus of these books is increasingly an ongoing treatise on the value of intellectualism, the dangers of populism and an indictment of racial intolerance.
Princeps opens a few months after the conclusion of Scholar, with Quaeryt and his new wife Vaelora abruptly reassigned from oversight of the province of Tilbor to the governorship of Tealryn, a region devastated by a recent volcanic eruption. With half the capital city under still-cooling lava, the new governor is confronted with the challenges of a failing infrastructure, hostile nobles and an impending war that will rob him of his last military support.
This is obviously not your typical fantasy fare, but Modesitt nevertheless presents a compelling story that has more in common with novels of historical fiction like The Pillars of the Earth than with fantasy books. The majority of the plot is moved by the everyday demands of governing a city in crisis. And while Quaeryt has some additional magical abilities to call on to help solve those problems; Princeps spends more time distancing itself from the magic of Imaging than it does exploring those mysteries. Instead we get an enhanced version of the ‘daily life’ fantasy that has become the trademark of the Imager Portfolio.
Hiding inside the day-to-day events of the book is a surprisingly biting manifesto criticizing the present-day United States. The Imager Portfolio has always been pro-education and pro-art, but both of Quaeryt’s novels have taken it a step further by presenting a world where scholarship is looked upon with suspicion and fear and the protagonist has been cast in opposition to this version of populism. The ‘good guys’ are those who are accepting and respectful of peoples’ differences, be they intellectual, racial or cultural, while the ‘bad guys’ are depicted as intolerant despots who enslave talent in order to control or suppress it.
Add to this undertones of anti-racism that have been in the series since the beginning in the form of the Pharsi, a cultural analogue of the Jews or possibly Gypsies, who have repeatedly ended up on the right side of the plotline but the wrong side of the Solidar’s cultural norms. Authors of science fiction and fantasy have always used current events as creative fodder for their stories, but Modesitt seems to be hitting these particular nails harder than he usually does. Personally, I don’t think it’s a bad thing. Of course, I count myself in favor of that segment of the population he’s defending, so take all this with a grain of salt.
One thing that is a little disappointing is how bland the actual events of the book are. The major plot point, taking over the governorship, occupies a surprisingly small amount of the text, with the journey to the new province and the somewhat surprising climactic action taking up large chunks at the beginning and end. In some ways, Princeps is a transitional novel, setting up the conflicts that will occur in the next book, Imager’s Battalion. As such, of course the internal content won’t be up to snuff. But the challenges of being a governor of a region that has just been devastated by a natural disaster are interesting, and relevant to our experience, and Modesitt doesn’t do them justice.
Another minor problem is the relationship between Quaeryt and Vaelora, which swings between sickeningly sweet and dangerously on the ropes pretty much every chapter. It is unclear if Vaelora is holding her new husband to ridiculously high standards that no man could possibly meet, or if she just likes to make him feel at fault for everything, but the dynamic feels artificial, particularly given the pacing of the book. On the one hand, it plays up the importance of communication between partners, but it does so by making the baseline for the relationship dangerously reliant on drama. This is not to say that Vaelora isn’t intelligent or well written. She’s just a little crazy too.
Ultimately, if you’ve gotten four books into a long fantasy series, you’re probably going to keep reading regardless of the quality or content of the individual novels. And the message underneath the somewhat thin plot is worth reading, even if it is a bit heavy handed at times. Princeps isn’t a bad book, but it also isn’t a reason to fall in love with the Imager Portfolio again.