As the title implies, Imager is the first book in a new fantasy series where certain people can visualize things into existence. The cover of the book is a bit mislead—at least it was for me—because at first I thought that people did magic by drawing things. It's much cooler than that; once again, L.E. Modesitt, Jr.'s talent for worldbuilding, and in particular for creating systems of magic, is evident throughout this book.
Modesitt manages to establish an intricate network of sociopolitical relationships without making the reader drown in a sea of names and numbers. (Alas, that ability doesn't extend to names of people ... in several heavily-populated scenes I was suddenly inundated by excess names I knew I'd never be seeing again.) Certainly, half of Imager is probably exposition ... but Modesitt manages to work it in as didactic dialogue germane to the plot. Some of the ethical discussions among characters could have been more subtle, but again, that's not really Modesitt's style. Still, I never felt like I was reading a fictitious history or ethics book instead of a fantasy adventure novel. If anything, I was painfully aware the entire time that I was reading an L.E. Modesitt fantasy adventure novel.
Some other reviewers have commented on the similarity of structure between Imager and The Magic of Recluce. Once again, we've got a talented young man who isn't content following in his father's footsteps but happens to have a knack for magic. So he ends up as a trainee mage with a more experienced mentor who uses the Socratic method to teach. Additionally, Modesitt tends to focus heavily on the mechanics of the crafts he mentions in his novels, whether it's woodworking, smithing, the wool business, or magic. There are endless conversations among people about the minutiae of the wool business or the embroidery design business. Most of this served a latent function, of course, but on the surface it was severely banal. Again, I don't need to know exactly how many golds or silvers Rhenn is spending each week.
The characters who serve as mouthpieces for such conversations are anything but banal. I enjoyed the broad palette of characters in Imager. Rhenn seldom sees eye-to-eye with his father, who, as a businessman, has a fairly static view about life and respectable occupations. While more open-minded than her husband, Rhenn's mother clearly has concerns about social status; Rhenn does worry about whether she'll find his Pharsi girlfriend acceptable. Said girlfriend, Seliora, was probably my favourite character: capable and confident, but not condescending. Not that there's much wrong with the main character, but he's just such a stock Modesitt protagonist: young man in need of tempering who does good and makes a couple of mistakes along the way.
The pacing of Imager could also stand improvement. Rhenn's abilities as an imager approve in a linear fashion throughout the book. The obstacles he faces do not. He's a constant target for assassins, and he foils a couple of assassination attempts on some allies. Otherwise, the stakes never seem as high as the characters claim they are. The book's pacing is flat, and there were never any big surprises that are indicative of truly superb writing. Indeed, although Modesitt is a competent writer, Imager is very typical of his work: predictable yet still creative, precise yet still lacking in a sense of wonder.
Modesitt has created yet another interesting world with plenty of potential for conflict and intrigue. Imager is solid, and despite any misgivings I might have, I'm looking forward to the second book.. Fans of Modesitt, or newcomers who appreciate clever and deft worldbuilding, should definitely check this book out.