Saturday, 31 July 2021

Imager (The Imager Portfolio #1)

Author: L. E. Modesitt, Jr.
eBook Publisher: Tor Books
eBook Date: Mar 2009
Pages: 529
Cover Art: Donato Giancola

Off of the back of the majestic light-fantasy/historical mashup that was The Initiate Brother, I was in the mood to spread my fantasy genre wings a bit more broadly, so I decided to delve headfirst into heavyweight territory and begin a series by prolific author L E Modesitt Jr. This series is collected together as The Imager Portfolio and consists of a total of twelve books at the time of writing.

This is full on fantasy with a captial "F". However, rather than wrapping this up in medieval society trappings with winged horses, dwarves, elves, hobbits and the suchlike, here we have a refeshingly advanced setting more in common with the Industrial Revolution and early Victoriana where there are (at least in this first book) no fantastical creatures to populate the pages or plot.

Modesitt has been around a while, and I was already well aware of his range of work and knew that he invests himself into fairly lengthy book series (The Saga of Recluse being the one I see everytime I wander around a bookshop - I think he's up to something like book 22 by now?), so I was prepared to invest a sizeable chunk of my time, and had an idea that with The Imager Portfolio already being listed at twelve installments of fairly lengthy novels this was going to potentially not be a fast-paced opener.

I wasn't wrong, Imager takes its time to tell its' story. However, Modesitt does it with such panache and skill that you cannot be anything but impressed. He has achieved that uncanny talent of making a day-to-day journal seem a lot more interesing than it should be. Hats off to him for that. Just when you start to think, oh this is getting a bit repetitive now, he pull out a surprise or two to keep things fresh or buck you up out of your seat and keep reading. Imager is one of those books that keep you wanting to read "just one more chapter before bed". It helps that the chapters are short too - I always find myself reading novels with short chapters so much quicker than ones with the opposite.

The Initiate Brother (Book #1)

AuthorSean Russell (aka Sean T. Russell)
Publisher: Daw Books
Publication Date: 1991
Pages: 480
Cover Art: Michael Whelan 
Not currently available in eBook format, but available as an Audiobook.

The Initiate Brother by Sean Russell is a long story split into two volumes, of the first half consists mainly of a huge cast of characters with weird-sounding names talking to each other, and not a lot of action or adventure until the final quarter. Contrary to how that introduction might sound, I was so thoroughly impressed by it, that it has forced it's way in to my top twenty favourite books of all time. Depending upon how the second half in this duology pans out, it could even work its way into my top ten of all time - it was that good.

Attributing a genre to this novel written in the early nineties is slightly misleading. Although the setting and background are very heavily influenced by Chinese/Japanese culture, author Russell has created his own fantasy world that could easily read like it has been directly lifted from ancient historical novels such as The Tale of Genji or Romance of the Three Kingdoms. But it's relationship to the fantasy genre is so slight that it almost takes a back seat and gives the reader the impression that they are actually reading a lost novel from our own history.

The Initiate Brother is set in a land dominated by the Empire of Wa, where the ruling Emporer, Akhantsu II, controls the land and waterways over his subjects. To the north the empire of Wa is protected from being invaded by savages by one of many House Clans. The empire has two main religions, the Botahist Order and the Tomsoian Church.

In terms of social status and heriditary, below the Emporer there are many Houses competing for the right to become the next ruling dynasty. Pacts and feuds are commonplace between many of the families, who are all simultaneously grovelling to the current Imperial power whilst scheming behind everyone's backs to futher their own needs and aspirations. Marriages between Houses, or killing off a rival political opponent to greatly advance ones status is a commonplace part of imperial court life.

The Middle Kingdom (Chung Kuo #1)

AuthorDavid Wingrove
Publisher: New English Library
Publication Date: 1989
Pages: 480
Cover Art: Jim Burns (Edition shown)
eBook Publishers: Fragile Media
eBook Date: Jul 2017

After having had such an amazing time reading the Asian-influenced first part of The Initiate Brother, I looked around for another book with a simialr theme. I was immediately tempted by my old collection of Chung Kuo novels.

I've toyed with Chung Kuo since it was published in the late eighties. I was remember being completely sold by my first sight of Book 1, The Middle Kingdom, when it came out with a beautiful cover that was predominently red around the borders, with Chinese dragons drapped over the top corners, and the image of an old Han sitting on a throne (see image below). Over the following thirty years, since I first tried to read the opening volume, it has haunted and daunted me to complete it. I'm going to try REALLY HARD this time to see it through to the bitter end (more on the end down below). But the sheer size of Chung Kuo can be a little intimidating.

The original run lasted for eight weighty tomes, and even though they are brilliantly written by author, David Wingrove, by their very nature I found them a bit difficult to get into at first. For me, the barrier holding me back was the inherent premise of the tale being told. You see, Chung Kuo (the new name for Earth) is about and  alternative future history where Chinese culture has become the dominant power on our planet, and because of that premise the number of characters with Chinese names takes a bit of getting used to. If you can get past this, then you will be truly rewarded with an excellent read.

Over a turbulant period (covered in later editions - see below) of Earth's history, the Chinese (or Han as they are referred to in these books) take over the running of our planet, and they impose their own culture and principles. As they rise to power they begin construction of a city that begins to expand across every continent. 

At the start of this first book, it has been 200 years since the upheavel and the City has all but covered every land mass apart from a few choice areas owned by the very rich and land that has been reserved for food production. The city is constructed of 'stacks' made up of 30 decks, with each deck having 10 levels and in total rises nearly 300 levels and 3 miles above the planet surface (now referred to as The Clay). As with any class-based culture, the lower your class, the lower the level you are allowed to live on. There are even sub-levels, below a protective security net that keeps the city free of ground-dwelling animals and diseases, this is where the criminal and undesirable elements are exiled too. Even with this enormous amount of living space, the population of 34 billion people is begining to stretch the resources of the massive administration. Added to this, the Hung Mao (i.e. non-Han) race crave for change; be that more political power, money, or simply the freedom to search the stars for places to expand the human race into; they are becoming more and more reactionary. There are many powerful men in this position, and they have become known as The Dispertionists.