I am late to contribute to the raft of praise for L.E. Modesitt’s latest Fantasy book series, The Grand Illusion. The first book, Isolate, was released in October 2021. Book 2 in the series, Councilor, is scheduled to be released in August 2022, and he has already submitted book 3 to his publishers. (This author is prolific, working on multiple series and books at the same time.) I read it and was very impressed, though I wasn’t sure how to categorize it – so I thought I’d best leave it to the author himself to explain:
A brief aside: what is a Gaslamp – or Coal-Power – Fantasy? It is also known as Gaslight Fantasy or Gaslight Romance, and it is a sub-genre of both Fantasy and Historical Fiction. It is similar to Steampunk, which, like Gaslamp Fantasy, is often set in the Edwardian or Victorian eras (1837 – 1914). However, Steampunk often contains elements of Speculative Science Fiction and can have a uchronic timeline, meaning an alternative or hypothetical version of real-world history. Isolate is not an uchronic novel – the date given for the start of the story is the year 1266, but it is definitely not set in the late Middle Ages. But it is also not noticeably Victorian or Edwardian – there are too many hints of advanced industrialization. That explains why Modesitt gave this novel its own sub-genre label: High-Tech Coal-Power Fantasy.
A new form of “isolate”
L.E. (Leland Exton) Modesitt Jr. (isn’t that an interesting name?) is now 78 years old, but I never would have been able to deduce his age from his writing, because his novels are as relevant, complex, aesthetically pleasing, and as restrained in writing style as always.
You read them for the pleasure of the fictional world he has constructed in his smooth and flowing writing style, and then, afterwards, start wondering what conundrum in today’s world he implied, or which idea he wanted you to consider. He has said that the main aim of a writer should be to entertain (educate, move, confound, challenge) the reader. In Isolate, he firstly entertains the reader with truly eloquent writing, and then secondly, he educates and challenges you with the problems and reasoning of the characters. In this novel he gives new meaning to the term “isolate”, which, during the recent pandemic, took on negative associations. He does not use “isolate” as a verb, but as a noun describing a new type of human – a mutant with special talents.
Modesitt’s style: a detailed constructed world, plays with language, food details
This novel reminded me very much of Quantum Shadows, his 2020 Science Fiction work. Firstly, it has the same detailed, consistent and coherent descriptions of the world in which the characters live. He describes the places, geography, history, politics, social systems, etc., so well that the reader has no problem visualizing it. Secondly, he cleverly plays with and combines languages – German, French, Italian, etc., with English, to create new names and a sense of time and place.
Lastly, he has this quirk of describing meals and food in conspicuous detail. Like in Quantum Shadows, and his other novels, it seems as though he uses meals and food as behavioural and plot markers or pivot-points. When he describes the movements of the characters, inevitably, they are either having a meal, or dining out, taking instructions on where or when to eat, or visiting someone for a meal. This is often followed by a significant event.
Each main course, along with the dessert and drinks (wine or beer), is described is terms of the named dishes, their appearance, taste and enjoyment. The location of the meal is described in terms of the queues, if any, table arrangements, decor, company and serving staff. This happens all the time – practically on every page. In my opinion, the “Guldor Empire”, as the world in Isolate is called, is all about food, politics, and social rank, in that order.
By contrast, while he describes the characters’ clothes in almost as much detail, this book is different in that I scanned it numerous times but I couldn’t find any descriptions of the protagonists’ actual looks, eye-colour, hair, skin tone, height, weight, facial features. I could only find statements about how handsome and beautiful they are. This made me wonder about the extent of the mutation of the characters.
I was drawn to the high quality dust jacket artwork, by Chris McGrath, when I picked up the book in the store. It shows the two main characters who look like normal humans. If it weren’t for that image, they could have been hairy, six-legged aliens from the lack of descriptions in the book.
Essential jacket art
On this subject: I have said, more than once, that the cover or dust jacket design of a novel is critically important. Not only is the artwork the expression of the interpretation by the artist of the essence or core of the novel, but it is also an indication of the quality of the book, and most importantly, it is one of the three things that makes a potential reader pick it up and buy it. This happens in three steps – the buyer notices 1) the author’s name and book title, 2) the dust jacket art; and 3) the blurb and opening paragraphs.
Watch how people behave in a book store. They pull out a book and look at the cover, flip it over and read the blurb, open it and read the first few lines. If they like it, then they buy it. Commissioning real and high quality art for a jacket is an investment in a product which has already had high sunk costs. Not getting a high quality design, even if you publish it yourself, is a wasted investment.
In this case, the publisher’s investment in the gorgeous artwork by Chris McGrath filled a gap left by the author, and led me to buy the book.
In Isolate, being the first book in a new series, the cover image is also important because it is the first representation of a newly created world. It has not existed before- it is a reification. It sets the tone for how readers will imagine the story as it progresses through the trilogy. From that image, I could tell that the book is not Steampunk, nor it is Gaslight Fiction (the outfits and hairstyles are too modern) and also that one of the protagonists is female. While the story is narrated in the 3rd person and told mostly from the viewpoint of the male protagonist, there are two lead characters, two bodyguards, who assume roles of equal importance.
The illusion of politics
Modesitt depicts his characters as if they were living in a world dominated by an extremely rigid caste system. Their clothes are dictated according to their natures (“ordinary person”, “isolate”, “empath”, etc.) and their roles or jobs (security, administrator, lawyer, political leader, etc.). The outfits are limited, quite old-fashioned (dresses, veils/scarves, handbags and gloves for the women), which is acceptable in a “Gaslight” type of novel, and show almost complete conformance and lack of individuality. I mean, just how many shades, and degrees of transparency, can a scarf have? Even the appearance of the general population categorizes them into social classes: manual labourers are said to be paler than others – yes, lighter-skinned, not darker-skinned, as one would think people who work outdoors would be.
That is part of what makes this world tick: rules and regulations, obedience, stratification and control, brutal punishment for any deviation from the norm. The novel is the political history of an artificial world, but it also reminds you of current real-world parallels.
Daily routines interrupted by violence
Much of the narrative consists of descriptions of the daily routine of the two protagonists. The woman is “Avraal Ysella”, an “empath”, someone who is extremely sensitive to the feelings of others, can detect and identify their emotions at a distance, and can direct blasts of concentrated emotion towards people to affect their behaviour. (Think “Deanna Troi” in Star Trek.) The man is “Steffan Dekkard”, an “isolate”, someone who is closed off and whose feelings and thoughts cannot be detected by others, even empaths. He is immune to any blasts of emotion, and impossible to bribe or corrupt. Avraal and Steffan are mutants, born with these special, none-transferrable abilities. Their abilities have caused them to move beyond the limitations of their class.
They are two sides of a coin, opposites, in fact. Both are bodyguards to “Axel Obreduur”, a minister and political party leader in the “councilor” class of citizens. Avraal detects threats, Steffan neutralizes them. The story kicks off with Steffan already in Obreduur’s employ as a bodyguard, living in the city of “Machtar”, the capital of the Guldor Empire.
His daily routine starts in his room at the Obeduur mansion. Every morning he gets up, gets dressed according to the official outfit for what he has to do that day, puts on his weapons, goes to the staff dining room, sits down, has two cups of coffee, two croissants, and two slices of quince paste. (I did say that Modesitt includes a lot of details about food.)
He does not like tomato jelly, or any substitute for quince paste. Then, Steffan talks a bit about the duties of the day with his counterpart, Avraal, reads one of the two daily newssheets, called the “Gestirn” (the German word for yesterday is “Gestern”) and drives the large, steam-powered vehicle, called a “Gresynt” to the front of the Obreduur mansion.
Obreduur “steps inside” rather than gets in, which gave me the impression that the steam-driven Gresynt is like a smallish steam-powered tram crossed with a limousine. All the cars in the Guldor seem to be types of Gresynts. With Avraal looking out for dangerous emotions from people on the road, he drives them to Obreduur’s government office, they go inside, they both do some sort of clerical work, until Obreduur says it’s lunchtime, they eat, they walk him to and from his office, and then Steffan drives them back to his house, and the next day it starts all over again.
Politics, politics, all the time
During this routine, Obreduur, Avraal, Steffan, ministers, party leaders, union and business leaders, and other empaths and isolates in security details, talk about politics: who will call an election, why, who is corrupt, who has done away with who, and why, who will win the most seats, etc. The tagline of the novel is plainly stated on the cover, “Politics are a necessary illusion”, and to understand what that means, you have to follow the political arguments in the novel.
Modesitt invented a system where the government is led by three parties, with their roles and powers allocated according to a constitution, the “Great Charter”, that was drawn up centuries ago to avoid corruption and war: the “Craft” party, the “Landor” party, and the “Commercer” party.
The Craft party, as its name indicates, represents mostly people who are manufacturers, producers, crafters or artists – people who make things, and workers who are unionized. Steffan is from a Crafter background. His parents and sister are craftspeople. The Landor party consists of people who are aristocrats and landowners, and the Commercer party, as the name implies, are business people, entrepreneurs and financiers – wheelers and dealers. It turns out that Avraal, contrary to expectations and class rules, has noble ancestors and grew up in a family who are all Landors, but chose to become a security empath. Obreduur, their inscrutable and unflappable boss, is the leader of the Craft party. You can see that the people represented by these parties would be fundamentally different from each other in terms of social standing, beliefs, power and wealth.
This system is thrown into disarray by the emergence of a new party of disgruntled citizens, called the “New Meritorists”. When the New Meritorists start rising up against the political leaders, the conflict turns violent and the story becomes a political thriller.
Assassins when you least expect them
The normal routine of ministerial duties and rounds, meetings, sessions with guild representatives, and speeches and debates in the Council hall, is interrupted in the very first chapter, the Prologue, and then at frequent but irregular intervals, by attempts on either Obreduur’s life or Steffan’s.
Usually, you are happily reading along; another lunch, another set of correspondence to process, some repartee between the characters, hey-ho, when suddenly, Avraal would say something to Steffan, like, “on your right”. Steffan would spot a would-be assassin, and before the person even has time to get off a shot, he’d have one of Steffan’s throwing knives in him and a vital body part crushed by a blow from Steffan’s truncheon.
It is really like that: Modesitt lures you into a feeling of comfort and predictability, while you read through all the political debates, conjecture, and reasoning about what’s wrong or right. Then, without any foreshadowing, another killer strikes. The way that Steffan dispatches these attackers is quite entertaining. I especially liked it when he threw one over a balcony and kersplat! – nothing left but a bloody lump of unidentifiable murderer.
A conclusion to tempt you to the next book
The book ends in a way that really made me want to buy the next one. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it is a high point, and the character and plot development throughout are engaging enough that I actually did end up caring about the protagonists and wondering what will happen to them. I admit that I had an all-nighter where I galloped through the last few chapters because I just had to know how it turns out.
It looks like Steffan Dekkard is going to be the main hero in this series – though it’s surprising how often the story revolves around women’s rights. He is excellent at close-combat, fearless, hyper-alert, handsome, well-spoken, can apparently also write well, and is completely honest and incorruptible. He’d have to be, since his employer and colleagues cannot tell what he is thinking or feeling. They have to assume – and rely on – that he is as honest as they come. Obreduur, his boss, thinks he has “promise”. All Avraal can tell about him, initially, is that he likes his croissants and quince paste and is a man of habit.
Continuing the world of Guldor
Just because the descriptions of politics, economies, international relations and civic functions sound sort of familiar, does not mean that the world of Guldor is not fantastical. (Did you notice, by the way, in the quote above, that in Guldor the sun rises in the west, not the east?) That’s why, notwithstanding the dust jacket, I did consider that Steffan and Avraal may not be entirely human. The odd-sounding last line of the novel also made me wonder about that, when Steffan realizes that Avraal’s sister will understand what is going on with the two of them: “And she will when she sees us together.” What does that mean? The sister has often seen them together – so what’s different this time? How have they changed? I guess I’ll have to read the next instalment to get the answer.
From the green sky (always shades of green, green rain, green clouds) over the grand buildings made mostly of marble, to the semi-industrial objects and systems, this world created by Modesitt is really very interesting. I know he has done this a lot and should therefore be good at it, but still – Guldor and its surroundings really is a painting that he had in his head and described in the minutest details.
I don’t actually believe that he has a specific message that he wants to bring across – it is enough that you have no choice but think about the meaning and outcomes of political decisions, from suicides, to murders, to mass shootings of protestors. He has said in an interview that primarily a writer has to entertain readers:
What the characters realize over and over, is that all that is happening, has happened in the past. And if people don’t remember the history and learn from it, they will make the same mistakes again and again. This gives you something to think about. It is not satire – there is no humour at all in the book – nor is it disguised Historical Fiction. The world of Guldor is presented to you fully formed, straight up and down, for your consideration. You can make of it what you will.
I give Isolate two big thumbs up, and luckily, I only have to wait two months for the publication of Councilor.
A little bit about L.E. Modesitt, Jr.
Modesitt is a hard-working professional author. In 2021, he wrote on his blog: “I’ve historically written at least two books a year for the past thirty years.” There is surprisingly little information about his personal life on the Internet, and there is no recent photo of him that I could find. He is very principled about how and what he writes. You can read more about him, his career as a writer, and his daily routine – now I know where Steffan’s morning routine comes from! – in this interview by Matthew Cheney on Tor.com: A Conversation with L.E. Modesitt, Jr. (published June 22, 2011, retrieved June 13, 2022)