Rex Regis is the eighth overall novel in L.E. Modesitt Jr.’s Imager Portfolio and the fifth one in the series-within-a-series about Quaeryt. The first three novels, with Rhennthyl as their protagonist, were set later in this fictional world’s timeline. Scholar, the first Quaeryt novel, moved the story several centuries into the past, initially making these books feel somewhat like prequels that mainly served to show the origins of the world of Imager, Imager’s Challenge and Imager’s Intrigue.
However, five books later, this second series of Imager books actually feels more solid than the first one. Quaeryt has become a more interesting character, and the plot has slowly but inexorably gained momentum. Even though I was initially sceptical about benching Rhenn, I now feel that the five Quaeryt novels are stronger and more rewarding than the initial three Imager books.
In case it isn’t clear by now, this review is about the eighth book in a series. What follows will contain spoilers for earlier volumes. If you’re not up to date on the Imager Portfolio, you can read my overview of the first three novels about Rhenntyl here, and my reviews of the first four Queryt novels here, here, here, and here. (In case you’re interested, I also conducted an interview with L.E. Modesitt Jr. that focused heavily on the Imager Portfolio.)
The cover illustration of Rex Regis (once again by Donato Giancola) is actually a great indication of how far we’ve come with this series. Compared to the dynamic covers of Scholar, Princeps, Imager’s Battalion, and Antiagon Fire, we now see a seated and more sedate Quaeryt. The palette is predominantly gray. This is an older man— biologically older, of course, but also and more importantly mentally older. He looks focused but tired, almost haunted, maybe showing a hint of some of the horrors he experienced (and caused) in previous novels.
Not coincidentally, Quaeryt is surrounded by maps on this cover. After all, one of the main plot drivers of this series has been the drive towards unification of a fractured realm, from the disparate regions seen at the start of Scholar to what has gradually, over the course of the series and no small thanks to Quaeryt’s actions, become the united realm of Solydar. This cover shows the end of a journey: Quaeryt is looking right at the reader, a changed man surrounded by what he has helped create.
The other main evolution that’s been built up throughout the series concerns the origins of the Collegium Imago, the organization of imagers that Rhennthyl joins in the very first book. As Scholar started off, there was no hint of this yet. Moreover, imagers weren’t well-regarded by the general population, to say the least. Through his actions on the battlefield and his discussions with Bhayar, Quaeryt has steadily built a case for just such an organization. In Rex Regis, Modesitt takes us further towards that goal.
The pace of Rex Regis is, appropriately, a bit more sedate than the previous volumes. This novel is more about threads coming together and being tied off than about starting new threads. Everything that came before, right back to the events of the very first novel, ends up playing a role in the final conclusion. Rex Regis represents the end game of a protracted and carefully orchestrated campaign..
The novel also displays an idea that Modesitt has been building up for a while: an imager’s powers are like a muscle, improved with use and especially with challenge. It’s almost comparable to a workout regimen: no pain, no gain. Throughout this series, we’ve seen some of Quaeryt’s companions (and of course Quaeryt himself) grow in strength considerably. By now, when a few of them get together to build something, it almost feels too easy: they’re building bridges and structures almost like a SimCity player laying down tiles. But again, this represents the end result of a long evolution carefully orchestrated by Quaeryt.
From the perspective of the first three Imager novels, these last five books present a lovingly detailed picture of the evolution of a fantasy society—“history in the making,” as I called it in a previous review. Modesitt shows the different areas and cultures that have become Solydar by the start of Imager. He also carefully illustrates the idea behind the creation of the Collegium: the small number of imagers who balance the various powers in this society and in the process establish protection for themselves.
Throughout this series, small details jump out, hinting at stories that could be told if Modesitt decided to go down that path: when Quaeryt and company stop at a farmhouse and hear the tale of why its inhabitants are independent and in their current situation, you can easily see how much of this background history could potentially be explored later. You feel that, at any time, Modesitt could whip out a trilogy about one of those characters and reveal again just how much depth is built into this fantasy world.
L.E. Modesitt Jr. has hinted that future stories set in this world may appear later, but for now Rex Regis is the final installment in the Imager Portfolio. Seen in the context of the author’s impressive bibliography, I’d recommend this series to newcomers who want to try some of Modesitt’s fantasy. It’s a less daunting series to pick up than the Saga of Recluce and, in my opinion at least, better than the Spellsong Cycle and the Corean Chronicles. Rex Regis is a worthy finale to what’s turned out to be the author’s finest complete fantasy series to date.
This review was originally published at Tor.com on January 9th, 2014.