This week I’m recommending a novel, `Scholar’, by an author I’ve previously avoided – L.E.Modesitt Jnr. Because Modesitt has written so many different Science Fiction and Fantasy series, I assumed that he was just churning them out to a formula. I was attracted to `Scholar’ by the title and found it to be a much more thoughtful and interesting novel than I was expecting. `Scholar’ was first published in 2011 and is available in paperback and in ebook or audio formats. It is officially the fourth book in the `Imager Portfolio’, but since `Scholar’ is set centuries before the first three `Imager’ stories, this is a good place to start.

The continent of Lydar is split into rival states. Lord Bhayar, the young ruler of Telaryn, is concerned about the province of Tilbor, conquered by his father ten years previously. He wants to know why it still takes a large army to keep Tilbor pacified and he sends his friend and advisor, Quaeryt to find out.  Scholar and historian, Quaeryt is a foundling who was brought up in a Scholarium. Very few people know that he is also an Imager, someone born with the talent `to visualize something and then have it appear’. Imagers are limited in what they can do by the physical costs, but they are still hated and feared; something Quaeryt would like to change. Before he leaves the capital, Quaeryt is surprised to be summoned by Bhayar’s spirited younger sister, Vaelora who wants to discuss her thoughts on history. Quaeryt’s journey to Tilbor is unpleasantly eventful. He encounters pirates, and Patrollers who hate all scholars, and barely survives a shipwreck and an attempt to poison him. On the way he learns a little more about his own heritage as one of the outcast Pharsi.

In Tilbor, the local Scholarium should be a safe haven but some of the scholars who teach there clearly don’t believe Quaeryt’s cover story that he’s been commissioned to write a history of the province. He has to take drastic action to protect himself. Once he gets to the Governor’s Palace, Quaeryt is welcomed by Governor Rescalyn and his deputy, Princeps Straesyr, and given every opportunity to study how the province is being ruled. He immerses himself in old records to find out what really happened when Tilbor was conquered and struggles to answer some puzzling letters from Lady Vaelora.  When Quaeryt rides with the troops on what should be routine patrols, his role as observer turns out to be surprisingly dangerous. He begins to suspect that something is very wrong in Tilbor and there is no-one he can trust to help him. If Quaeryt’s mission fails, his country will be in jeopardy, but if he uses his hidden powers to avert the crisis, even his own lord may think that this particular scholar is too dangerous to live….

The first hundred pages or so of `Scholar’  are fast-paced and exciting but resemble many other Fantasy adventure stories. Initially, Quaeryt’s Imager powers don’t seem very impressive. It takes considerable concentration just to `image’ a few copper coins into existence. Yet when Quaeryt is forced to defend himself he can kill with something as mundane as a piece of bread, by vizualizing it inside the attacker’s throat.  The challenges he faces in Tilbor, stimulate Quaeryt into developing new magical defences; ones that mustn’t be detected if he is to pass as an ordinary scholar. His ability to use a concealment shield (basically our old friend the `cloak of invisibility’) makes Quaeryt the ideal spy. The middle part of this book does read like a spy thriller, as Quaeryt tries to discover the complex truth about Tilbor’s recent past and its current political situation.  Be warned that lame Quaeryt isn’t a natural action hero. His preferred methods are diligent research in the archives and careful questioning of everyone he meets. Some readers have complained that this section of the story is dull. I found it fascinating since this is where Modesitt’s unflashy but meticulous world-building comes into its own.

Tilbor, with its dismal climate and inhospitable hill country, may lack glamour but thanks to all the social and economic data which Quaeryt collects, it seems much more real than most Fantasy realms. Quaeryt is just as interested in the opinions of vegetable-sellers, ferrymen and seamstresses as he is in the behaviour of the two aristocratic groups, the `High Holders’ who mainly co-operate with the Telaryn administration and the fractious `Hill Holders’ who cause frequent trouble. The military governor is trying to integrate Tilborian officers and men with his Telaryn troops (shades of Afghanistan). Quaeryt gets to know these officers well. They are not gung-ho, gore-loving warriors but pragmatic professional soldiers. They kill when they have to but would rather be back in their comfortable barracks than out on patrol. This novel features some exciting fights and battles but there is no glorification of violence. Modesitt has invented an unusual belief system which is shared by the people of both realms, particularly the soldiers who face death every day.  In this culture people worship a creator deity `who cannot be named or known, only respected’ and gather in unadorned buildings to `affirm the quest for goodness and mercy in all that we do’. All forms of `Naming’ are thought to be restrictive and wrong and actions are deemed to be more important than words.

Quaeryt isn’t sure whether he believes in the Nameless One but he ends up acting  as a kind of chaplain to the troops. In a series of sermons he explores the ethics of leadership and the dangers of patriotism and pride. This story asks serious questions about whether it is possible to learn from history and whether constant conflict is too high a price to pay for freedom. If that makes it sound dry, I promise that `Scholar’ also becomes a gripping psychological duel between Quaeryt and an enemy whose identity is only revealed in the last few chapters. Quaeryt is my kind of hero. This quiet, clever man is much more dangerous than he seems. He’s a loner playing a long game, who is challenged to open up by a young woman he barely knows. He’s a doubter himself, but he’s good at giving certainty to others. With his lack of family, his strange colouring and his dubious powers, Quaeryt doesn’t fit in anywhere, but it is society which is going to have to change. Quaeryt grows in status during the course of the novel but he can still be knocked sideways by something he only discovers on the very last page. If you like `Scholar’ , two sequels have been published already. It made me feel tired just reading the list of jobs that L.E.Modesitt has done in addition to writing all those books. Does the man never sleep? Until two weeks time….