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It sounds like the ultimate deus ex machina: hey, look at me, I can make and teleport stuff with the power of my mind!

Fortunately, L.E. Modesitt Jr. avoids that particular usage in "Imager," the first book of a new series with the theme of "imaging." He spends the entire book creating a semi-realistic fantasy world with Renaissance French flair, complete with guilds, social customs, subcultures, a tinge of romance and plenty of politics... but unfortunately he never really bothers with much beyond that.

Uninterested in the wool trade, Rhennthyl is apprenticed to a master artist, and soon learns that his skills are too formidable -- and too honest -- for his surly master. But then Rhenn's master and his son are killed in an explosion... mere seconds after Rhenn was imagining it. Frightened of the consequences, he rushes to Imagisle, where the "imager" mages live and work -- they are people who can shape reality with the power of their thoughts.

Becoming an imager has its own challenges, as Rhenn must learn to regulate, control and shape his powers, while learning all about philosophy, law and the strict rules (spoken and unspoken) that imagers live by. And though he personally has some problems with angry, jealous students, there are bigger problems facing the land of Solidar and the city of L'Excelsis -- including a serial killer murdering young imagers, and a brewing war between other lands.

Modesitt loves to create elaborate fantasy worlds, often with a set theme -- music, colour, and in this case the power of imagery (whether art or magic). And "Imager" has a wonderfully intricate world based on France of some centuries ago (except with guns) -- salons of haughty, cutthroat aristocrats, merchants dickering over money, the semi-ostracized Pharsi, and plenty of beautiful artwork. What's more, he gives great attention to the structure of these societies, and the politics of surrounding regions.

Perhaps most importantly, Modesitt comes up with a semi-plausible number of restrictions for the imagers, as well as society's intense discomfort with them.

Unfortunately, all that detail and realism leads to... boredom. The plot crawls by at a snail's pace, with lots of descriptions of the daily life of young imager students, which basically involves a lot of drills and studying. And every few chapters we get very long philosophical conversations about God (or "the Nameless"), law, morals, art, and the intricacies of making imager shields. Modesitt spices things up a little with the hints of encroaching war and some cloak-and-dagger intrigues for talented images, but it's not enough to give this book a real plot.

The cast has a lot of sprightly, quirky or memorable characters, ranging from the warmhearted Seliora to snotty rich boys. Unfortunately Rhennthyl is not one of them: he's too passionless and aimless, and he observes the world with clinically cold eyes. He even kills four men and cripples a fourth over the course of a few months, but never experiences a single twinge of guilt or shock -- even when facing his late master's widow.

"Imager: The First Book of the Imager Portfolio" has a brilliant setting and beautifully detailed framework, but its sluggish pace and aimless hero bog it down badly. At least it ends with the promise of more interesting tales to come.
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