On the Creation and Completion of The Imager Portfolio
By L.E. Modesitt Jr.
The novels of The Imager Portfolio take place across roughly 800 years in the world of Terahnar, a world in which a minuscule percentage of the population are imagers. Using the physiological strength of their bodies, they can visualize objects into being.
But how and why did I come up with this conceit? To begin with, I never want to “repeat” a magic system from one series to another. So I was looking for a different kind of magic. Perhaps because I’d tried to be an artist as a young man and even won an award in a small scholastic art competition, I came up with the idea of visualization magic, and then went to work codifying how it might work in a society and what kind of society would develop and how that society would be affected and/or constrained by that ability.
As I’ve noted elsewhere, my initial “outline” generally tends to focus on the background of the society, the culture, the government, the geography, some of the history… and, of course, the factors comprising the problem facing the protagonist. One of the basic problems facing any imager is that, because the talent requires physical strength and the availability of nearby materials, it is so dangerous to its users that most untrained imagers almost never reach adulthood.
That’s why, in Imager, the first Imager Portfolio book that I wrote, in the land of Solidar, all imagers are required to belong to and be trained by the Collegium Imago. The protagonist is Rhenn, a journeyman portrait artist trying to become a master painter, who is also a latent imager… and doesn’t know it. The discovery of his abilities nearly destroys him, demolishes all his hopes of being a master painter, and thrusts him into the Collegium while also setting him on a path leading to a conflict with the most powerful noble family in Solidar.
As seems to be my habit, I wrote the first three books about the latest period in the history of the nation of Solidar – a period similar to 1840s France, except there is no electricity and steam power is more advanced. I’ve always been interested in the interface of magic and technology. For so many years, especially when I was younger, it seemed to me that most fantasy writers effectively decided that fantasy could not or should not have technology. Randall Garrett was one of the few who didn’t, and I always enjoyed his take on matters, although I’ve taken a different tack in all my fantasy series. I never could see why magic and technology couldn’t co-exist, and I took matters even further in the Imager Portfolio, but, despite the advanced steam technology, the series is fantasy and definitely not steampunk.
Rhenn is a shade colder and more pragmatic than many of my other protagonists, and I knew that would be so from the beginning, simply because of the society in which he exists. He has his ideals, but what many people fail to comprehend is that, more often than not, idealists can be particularly ruthless, especially idealists who have been through the mill, so to speak. In Rhenn’s case, he’s had many of his own idealistic sensibilities tromped on rather thoroughly, beginning with the effective denial of his abilities as a portraiturist, simply because he is an outstanding artist and represents competition in a tight and competitive market. He’s had family tragedies because of the petty spite and pride of high holders and the unwillingness of the Collegium to stand up for individuals in order to protect the Collegium itself.
At the end of Imager’s Intrigue, Rhenn can see quite clearly the possibilities before him. He has no illusions about the limitations of the Council, or about the potential future strength of the Ferran mercantilist society, or about the time it will take to reform Solidar itself. He’s also seen the ruthlessness of the Ferrans, and their lack of anything regarding scruples. Mercy on his part would only be regarded as weakness and possibly doom Solidar in the time of his daughter… and he’s not about to allow that.
And, of course, as has been my wont, once I finished the first three books, the historian in me started asking, “Well… how did all this come to be?” And although I already had pieces of the backstory in place, I really wanted to write the whole story.
So the second set of books, five in all, takes place more than seven hundred years in the past and features Quaeryt, a scholar and a “closet” imager in the service of the Lord of Telaryn. The events deal with the Wars of Consolidation and the attempt by Lord Bhayar to use imagers as military weapons in dealing with, first, insurrection, and then invasion. Under Quaeryt’s tutelage and leadership, the imagers become, in fact, a new military technology, one that changes the entire history of the continent.
This isn’t anything new. In a way, with his use of cannon, that’s what Napoleon did, or Alexander the Great did, even if his father was the one who actually developed the phalanx that made Alexander’s conquests possible. Now, while Quaeryt’s success is similar to some events in our history, that’s only because all societies and governments in life have to follow certain patterns with corresponding political and social problems, and I want my books to contain those realities.
Then the last four books take place midway between the first two sets and deal with a period of transition from a traditional society into a more market-driven society against the wishes of the hereditary nobility. The first two of that period occur at a time when Solidar is emerging from a primarily agricultural society into early industrialization and when the imagers have retreated almost into insignificance, until the high holders – the landed nobility – threaten revolt, and to survive, Alastar, the head of the imagers, has to throw in with a marginally competent ruler in order to preserve both the imagers and the unity of Solidar, a situation where there’s no easy or totally “right” solution.
The protagonist of the last two books, untypically for fantasy or for me, is not a magic wielder. Charyn, the heir to the throne, is not an imager, but must work with imagers, with a growing merchant class, and with a restive and very unhappy aristocracy, not to mention the equivalent of worker unrest and religious reformation, with no magic tools of his own.
The final book of the middle period – and the last book in the series – is Endgames, and it just came out in hardcover in February.
And that’s the story of The Imager Portfolio.