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L.E. Modesitt, Jr. is a writer I go through phases of liking a lot to not liking him at all. My liking of him can change from one end of a series to another or from one end of a book to another. As a writer his world building is meticulous and detailed, though occasionally his cultures are thinly veiled excuses to get a Point of some kind across. His magic usually has a good bit of science in it, and vice versa. He tends to be the kind of writer who will write the main character’s entire life story before we get to the part where there is a story beyond, “and then so and so went to school where he learned a lot of stuff that is important and then this happened and he dated so and so.” (This can occasionally be extremely annoying.) He is a writer who never, ever writes about *stew, though he does not tend to go into the rhapsodic detail Steven Brust does when discussing food.
This book is the first book in the new Imager Portfolio series. Our Hero is a young man named Rhennthyl who comes from a well to do merchant background. He has a stable home life and his parents were permissive enough of his desire to be artist to allow him to be apprenticed as a portraitist.
Rhennthyl eventually discovers that he has the talents of an imager, someone with the ability to create things simply by imagining them. This is a very dangerous ability that requires extensive training because it the things created do not suddenly appear: the raw materials are drawn from whatever is in the area. (I am strongly reminded of the alchemy in the Fullmetal Alchemist series, where there needed to be an “equivalent exchange” of raw materials in order to create something.)
Our Hero is drawn into a world of danger and intrigue as his training becomes more and more complicated. (He also finds out who his friends really are when former acquaintances decide to reject him because of his newfound abilities.) He studies a great deal and slowly learns the ropes of his new profession. (In fact, most of the book involves Our Hero going to school, doing homework and being instructed at length by his mentors and teachers. It’s kind of like Hogwarts, if Harry were being trained to be James Bond.) While Our Hero is learning new things, he is also courting a brilliant young woman who turns out to be extremely savvy and very much the perfect partner for a would-be counterspy. (I have to say that the gentle, understated romantic subplot was one of the best parts of the book.)
Overall, I really enjoyed this book. The characters and interesting and engaging, and the world building is excellent. (Only one caveat: do not get this book if you do not love lengthy discussions involving ethics, politics and comparative religion. If you like that kind of thing, you would probably like this book, but I can see someone who does not like ethical and political discussions wanting to pitch this book through the window.)
*One of the clichés mentioned in Diana Wynn Jones Tough Guide to Fantasyland is “stew” being the only thing the characters ever eat, especially when at an inn.