I really looked forward to L.E. Modesitt‘s return to the Imager series. The first book, Imager, was typical Modesitt fare, but it felt like he was trying out some new stuff. In Imager’s Challenge, I felt like we went right back to where we were before Imager.
After the events of Imager, Rhennthyl, the main character, had been through the typical Modesitt transition. He had become a powerful, organized, highly methodical, politically correct male hero. For readers familiar with Modesitt’s earlier work, this is exactly the same hero we have been reading about forever. Modesitt’s main characters are decidedly politically correct and Modesitt spends a lot of time promoting gender equality. That’s not necessarily a bad thing in a genre that is replete with stereotypes that trend the other way, but to longtime fans, it feels like well-trod ground.
In Imager’s Challenge, Rhenn still has the problems of the previous book to cope with. He still has a tendency to stand up for what’s right, even when his superiors advise against it, and he reaps their disdain when his actions fail to live up to their intent. Rhenn’s ongoing feud with a noble family continues to threaten those he loves. And of course, Rhenn is deeply besotted with one uber-girl and remains her willing lap-dog despite any temptation to the contrary. So, there are lots of elements that could add up to an interesting story.
My problem is that I felt like I was plodding through another Recluce novel. Rhenn spends half the novel either painting or going on patrol with the local police-equivalent. The action scenes came and went too quickly. Worst of all, if you are a Modesitt fan, you know from the first half of the book exactly how everything would end. After the promise of change and growth as an author, Modesitt simply slipped right back into the almost novel-by-numbers pattern that has been so pervasive in his other fantasy series.
I liked Imager’s Challenge and as a long-term Modesitt fan, I would read it again. I was sorely disappointed that my perception of a break with the old style was not realized. Imager’s Challenge might as well be a Recluce novel, and Rhenn falls squarely back into the ranks of all the other Modesitt heroes we know so well. It’s a good book, but it’s not a breakthrough to something new.