THE IMAGER PORTFOLIO has covered two eras and two separate characters and tied them together with a theme of great power and great responsibility. L.E. Modesitt Jr. has taken the time to show the evolution of magic (imaging) in a low-tech world and has given us some pretty amazing world-building. The challenge for readers, however, is that it has been at times dreadfully boring, endlessly repetitive and so heavy-handed in its statements about the social conditions and the inherent prejudices that exist in that world that even the most stalwart fan gets… tired.
Imager’s Battalion covers the war between Telaryn, the more moderate, socially progressive nation, and Bovaria, the more conservative, aggressive and socially repressive nation. Quaeryt, recently recovered from the typical almost deadly over-exertion of a Modesitt hero, is called back to lead his formation of Imagers to be that decisive edge between stalemate and victory.
I have to give Modesitt credit for not candy-coating the road to war. For soldiers and even officers who are on the long march between battles, it’s an unpleasant experience. Modesitt uses this time to make a number of different points. Through Quaeryt’s choices to continually train his Imagers, to develop and instill respect amongst the ethnically diverse group, and when presented with opportunities to interact with the locals, he’s always very, very good. It never even feels like Quaeryt is tempted to lash out in anger, or that his long separation from his wife is even a temptation to dally with some of the lovely local women who are the beneficiaries of Quaeryt’s socially progressive attitudes. This perfection makes Quaeryt… boring.
The inevitable battles happen and, per the Modesitt recipe, Quaeryt and the imagers achieve success against impossible odds. It’s not just the overwhelming numbers of enemy forces arrayed against them, but the consistent manipulations by self-serving officers and nobility who manipulate circumstances to force Quaeryt to lead his troops to miraculous success or die trying. Even his close relationship with Lord Bhayar, the ruler of Telaryn, seems to only increase the danger that he has to face instead of providing the normally expected top cover in the case of failure.
Imager’s Battalion was not a fun read. There are interesting aspects to the story and it fills in great blanks between the different eras. Imagers in Rhennthyl’s time (the first three books in the series, set later in the chronology) have the special, respected position that they do because of Quaeryt’s efforts. After reading the first five books I am glad to have finished Imager’s Battalion, but unlike most of the other books in the series, I have no desire to read this one again. It felt like a textbook, not a fantasy novel.