INTRODUCTION: After the trilogy consisting of Imager, Imager's Challenge and Imager's Intrigue that introduced us to Rhenn, one of the most enchanting narrators in recent fantasy, LE Modesitt goes back in time before the unification of Solidar to give us a tale that introduces another great character, scholar and secret imager, Quaeryt Rytersyn.
This time we will be treated to five Quaeryt volumes in the next few years - all written and all but the last titled and edited to go - so Princeps which picks up exactly where Scholar ends is the second volume of a huge five volume novel.
I will try to keep spoilers for Scholar at the minimum but obviously there will be some, so if you have not yet read the first Quaeryt novel and do not want to find out some major developments there, check my review of Scholar above instead.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: First a quick refresher of the setup: the island continent of Lydar - in Rhenn's books named Solidar - separated in various states since time immemorial has recently been consolidated into three countries, of which big bad Bovaria in the East under sinister Rex Kharst plans to unite the whole continent with fire and sword and cleanse it of undesirable elements like the Pharsi minority - darker hued merchants, industrialists and seers famous for their beautiful and beguiling women as we have seen Seliora, Rhenn's wife in the original trilogy - the learned scholars and the magic wielding Imagers.
Opposing it, Telaryn is the other main continental power which has expanded to conquer most of the Western part of Lydar under its warlord Yaran dynasty, while the smaller southern Antiago stands for now mostly due to the reputation of its war Imagers and dreaded Antiagon Fire weapon.
Married with beautiful Pharsi women, so their prophetic capabilities run also in their family, the lords of Telaryn, brutal and unforgiving as they may be, are still better than the alternatives, and current Lord Bhayar is actually milder than his father and grandfather, though of course that invites ambitious governors with armies at their back to plot against him as some feel they offer a better chance to fight bigger Bovaria.
But Bhayar has a secret weapon - not that he fully knows it to start, though as the master manipulator he is slowly revealed through the first two books, he soon realizes it and becomes ruthless in using it -and of course that weapon is his former childhood classmate, Quaeryt, orphan raised by scholars, blond but with Pharsi blood so making him one of "the lost ones" as he keeps hearing it, super competent trouble shooter, scholar and secret Imager.
And as Quaeryt starts solving some of Bhayar most pressing internal problems, while keeping a semi-official correspondence with Vaelora, the headstrong and very intelligent youngest sister of Bhayar, what better way for the manipulator lord to marry the two and get rid of a potential domestic problem and tie Quaeryt even stronger to Bhayar's reign - not that Quaeryt does not realize it but as this dialog with Bhayar shows it, that's how it is:
"Quaeryt could not have expected anything else, he supposed. "Not Vaelora. Don't bring her into it--"
"I won't, not so long as I can count on you."
You truly are a bastard. Quaeryt didn't speak those words. "What other choice do we have?" He kept his voice level.
"Not much. You more than anyone should know what Kharst--or any other ruler--would do ... has done to imagers and scholars."
"Why do you think I've done what I've done--even before Vaelora?"
While keeping the same essential structure as "Scholar" - third person narration focusing on Quaeryt and storyline divided into three parts with the short first, more of an introduction, and the second and third parts being the "meat" of the book all ending with a concluding few pages at a good "to be continued" point, "Princeps" has a few differences, most notably the addition of Vaelora as main character whom we see quite a lot of as Quareyt's wife and the clearer division between Quaeryt as problem solver and Quaeryt as soldier since they roughly correspond to the second and third parts respectively.
I actually quite like that in this series - unlike the usual genre approach - rather than having the hero's love interest suffer unexpected reverses and the two being apart for contrived reasons, the author has the hero getting engaged and married fast so there are two main characters, and possibly kids to come too.
Another good point that is driven very well home in Princeps is that competence is not necessarily appreciated in a society that does not follow a democratic capitalist organization like ours, as being good at what you do may be threatening to the vested interests and may also rub them in the face with the fact that money or noble blood does not really make one superior.
"Still, as he waited, Quaeryt couldn't help but ponder about the situation in which he found himself. For far more than the first time, he wanted to shake his head. If he provided flour at a reasonable price for the poorer inhabitants of Extela, the factors and holders complained. If he didn't, the poor complained."
This very sfnal approach to fantasy - which is a trademark of both the Imager and the long running Recluce series is also something I really like and it is part of why with around 30 books read from his 56 or so published to date, L.E. Modesitt is second in living authors ranked by how much I read from and any new book of his is at least a "try" if not a must.
Overall Princeps is a top 25 novel of mine for 2012 and I will end with the one phrase summation from Goodreads that could stand in place of the longer review above: "excellent sequel to "Scholar"; Quaeryt and Vaelora solve one problem at a time until the **** hits badly the fan."
Note: this review has been originally published on Fantasy Book Critic and all the links and references are to be found there