Scholar and Princeps, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., are the fourth and fifth books in his series The Imager Portfolio. An imager is capable of bringing things into existence by imagining them carefully and in detail. Different imagers can image different things, and they vary greatly in strength. Interestingly, imagers don’t bring things into existence ex nihilo; they need raw materials like everyone else. There are dangers, here; an imager who tries to image a large quantity of iron, for example, might find that he’s pulled all of the iron out of his own blood. Whoops! And imaging can have physical repercussions: imaging gold, for example, can give you something that looks a lot like radiation sickness.
Imagers make really good assassins—think of imaging an air bubble in someone’s brain, for example—and so historically in Modesitt’s world they haven’t been all that popular. The first three books in the series, Imager, Imager’s Challenge, and Imager’s Intrigue take place in one of the few countries where imagers are welcome; and there they have to live in and abide by the rules of the Collegium. Rhennthyl, the hero of the first trilogy, soon learns that imagers exist in uneasy partnership with the government, each supporting the other, and that imagers who openly use their powers to do harm are punished by the Collegium in the most draconian possible way.
Scholar takes up the story several hundred years earlier. There is no Collegium; rather, there are a number of small, warring countries, all fragments of an earlier empire called Tela. Quaeryt is a scholar, a member of the scholarium in Solis, the capital of Telanar; and he is the friend and long acquaintance of Lord Bhayar, the ruler of Telanar. Scholars aren’t any more popular than imagers, generally speaking; they give people dangerous ideas. It so happens that Quaeryt is also an imager (well, duh), though he has always kept that a secret.
Lord Bhayar’s goal is to keep his throne, and protect his country from its neighbors, and to that end he sends Quareyt to the northern province of Tilbor, an acquisition of his father’s, to see whether it’s really necessary to keep a full regiment stationed there when Kharst of Bovaria looks to be invading in the near term. Quareyt has his own goals: to make Telanar a safe place for scholars and imagers both. I rather expect that Modesitt’s working up to telling us about the genesis of the Collegium, but we’re not there yet.
The book is in familiar Modesitt territory; Quareyt has to master his powers, is put in situation after situation where he has to use them to survive, discovers various plots and has to deal with them, and so forth. Still, there are some pleasant differences from the usual. (Yes, Modesitt’s got his formulas, tropes, and deeply grooved ruts. I like his stuff anyway.) First, Quareyt’s not an ignorant kid; he’s smart, politically, savvy, and experienced. Second, in Princeps he ends up married. Usually in Modesitt’s books when two characters get married, it’s your typical science fiction/fantasy relationship that more or less just works. A little romance is necessary to the plot, but it’s not the plot, it’s just gravy. Here, Quareyt ends up married to a woman he hardly knows, who is at least as smart as he is; and though they are both happy to be married, they have to learn to live together…and the road is neither smooth as glass nor covered with craters. It’s a little bumpy, and there are adjustments to be made, and I thought it was pleasantly realistic.
So I enjoyed them; and I’m looking forward to the subsequent book whenever it happens to come out.