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Is the whole thing an illusion? – Councilor, by L.E. Modesitt Jr.

Councilor is no. 2 in the Grand Illusion series by L.E. Modesitt Jr. I am committed to reading the entire series because I enjoy Modesitt’s refined and precise writing style, and I am intrigued by the world, “Guldor”, with its green skies and stratified society, that he has created for this series.

Councilor – A Novel in the Grand Illusion, by L.E. Modesitt Jr. (Science Fiction, Political Thriller, publisher: ‎Tor Books, August 9, 2022, hardcover, 528 pages)

From exposition to debate

The first novel, Isolate, is intriguing without being overly suspenseful, consisting of quite a bit of scene-setting and exposition, and the two protagonists are strange, but still likeable. (Modesitt invented new words for the novel and my spell-checker is giving me grief about it – how I spell words here is how he spells them in the book.) It ended with one of the pair, “Steffan Dekkard”, an Isolate, being appointed as one of the Council of Sixty-Six for Guldor, and marrying “Avraal Ysella”, an Empath and his colleague.

A reminder for those who have not read it yet or forgotten: an Empath is someone who can sense people’s emotions at a distance, and can beam concentrated emotions back at them, like a weapon. An Isolate is someone whose emotions and mental processes cannot be detected at all, even by an Empath. So, this marriage is quite unusual – in one way the two are complementary in their skills, and make a formidable security force for their employer, “Premier Alex Obreduur” of Guldor, and on the other hand, they must make special efforts to communicate and understand each other. How, for instance, do you communicate the love you have for each other if the one person cannot show it, and the other person cannot feel it?

At the end of book 1, Steffan, a security aide, has unexpectedly been voted in to fill a dead councilor’s shoes – an unprecedented promotion. Guldor society is increasingly unstable because of a small group of violent dissidents who want the Council to be more transparent. Regular assassination attempts are made on Obreduur’s life and later, on Steffan’s life. Steffan and Ysella manage to thwart all the attempts, and those passages are very entertaining.

Book 2 – Councilor – the plot thickens

These scenarios develop further in book 2, and Modesitt continues with his quirk of describing dining in detail. And for the first time, he describes Steffan and Avraal’s appearances. Up to this point, he just referred to them as good-looking or glamorous. But, this is also political thriller: the systems and changes in Guldor society have some parallels in actual history, the French Revolution being one. However, as Terry Pratchett warned, though a setting for a novel of his might sound very much a spoof of Egypt, Greece or France, readers should not get hung up on that, and, like most novels say on the title page – they are works of fiction and any resemblance to real people is coincidental, etc. etc…

There is a lot of socio-political explanations, debates, machinations, and manoeuvring to wade through, because the book is a hefty 528 pages long. It’s unavoidable that the reader will end up having to consider which side of the debates they are on, and what their own stance on these issues is, because the situations in the novels do have parallels with real life and current world politics.

Modesitt has said that his rule for writing is to, first and foremost, entertain the reader. This he definitely does in this series, but he also makes you have second thoughts. I do like this quote, below, though I cannot find the original source:

“When all the research, all the writing group support, all the cheerleading, and all the angst fade away, and they should, the bottom line is simple: As a writer, you first must entertain your readers. To keep them beyond a quick and final read, you have to do more than that, whether it’s to educate them, make them feel, anger them by challenging their preconceptions—or all of that and more. But if you don’t entertain first, none of what else you do matters, because they won’t stay around.”

Spoiler alert

And here comes a spoiler, without which I cannot write this review: Obreduur, the all-round good guy and elder statesman councilor, is assassinated. Finally, the anarchists do him in.

But this puzzled me, and I concluded that this novel, like the middle book in a trilogy or the centre painting in a triptych, is merely the glue that holds the thing together or a bridge that links the beginning to the end, with nothing exceptional or conclusive in it. It’s a passage, not a standalone story-line which has a final ending. There are too many loose ends in this novel, and one of them, Obreduur’s death, is strangely understated.

Too many questions

Why is there so little about his funeral? Where is his body? Was there a post-mortem? Why is there actually little about Steffan’s reaction to his death, other than regret? Why does Obreduur’s wife seem to cope with it with saint-like stoicism when most people would just collapse in a heap of snot and tears? Why don’t his family fear another attack and leave the city, rather than soldier on with replacements? I have too many questions.

The subtitle of the series is “A Novel in The Grand Illusion”. In the novel, Modesitt describes the political system and the rules of governance as a grand, common illusion. Any political system in real life, being abstract, is illusionary.

The characters debate that point quite a few times, so it is not merely a description for the publisher:

“Dekkard waited until Sandegarde began to eat before he took a bit of the chicken. It wasn’t as tasty as usual. Or is that you? After a bite or two, he asked, ‘How do you see the difference between the iron and steel industry and Council politics?’
‘That’s an interesting question. My answer would be similar to what you just said. Both produce something necessary for Guldor. Steel supports every large building, every ship, every steamer or steam lorry. Laws and regulations support and hold society together. Weakness in either hurts hurts people and society as a whole.’
‘Yet most people think of steel as more necessary than politics,’ Dekkard pointed out. ‘Even some councilors, I imagine.’
‘That’s a necessary illusion, Steffan. think about it.’
‘It’s an illusion that the New Meritorists would destroy in their desire for personal accountability.’
‘That’s why they need to be annihilated. Not merely stopped. Totally removed. Otherwise the issue will keep coming up.’
‘Their grand illusion is that personal voting accountability will solve everything.’
‘Won’t it?’ Sandegarde smiled sardonically.”

Councilor, by L.E. Modesitt, Jr., p. 281

Guldor’s political system only works if the people who are subject to it, believe in it and abide by the rules. It is an illusion, on a grand, national scale, a kind of shared dream.

But is Guldor, with its Imperador and its three-party society (Commerce, Craft and Landor) the only illusion in this constructed world? What if the death of Obreduur is also an illusion? What if the whole thing, the entire empire, is an illusion?

Hurry up and wait

Contrarian, by L.E. Modesitt Jr. – due out in Aug. 2023. Note the sub-title.

Book 3, Contrarian, is due out in August 2023. I hope all the loose ends in the narrative will be satisfactorily tied up, and all my questions answered, in the final book. How, though, I cannot imagine.

Modesitt is a prolific, best-selling author. He turns out new books at a steady rate and if you thought that doing this reduces their quality, it’s not the case. He is truly a professional. However, he is, by reputation, something of a contrarian himself, going against the grain of public engagement as part of the publishing process. He doesn’t need to.

Therefore, I am wondering: if the subtitle for the last book is, “Be the change you seek”, are the events in Book 2 not just another illusion? And will the changes that Steffan is conservatively contemplating (not many at all) come about? I do also wonder about Steffan and Avraal: what is going to happen to them? Will there be a Dekkard offspring?

So many questions, just one book to answer them all

Modesitt has created six series of Sci-Fi novels, including The Grand Illusion. His longest-lasting series, The Saga of Recluce, started in 1991, and he has published 22 novels in that series to date, and there are two more novels in the works due by 2024. Considering the appeal and success of The Grand Illusion series, and the time, effort and commitment that he has expended in writing it, I’m wondering whether he would consider extending it beyond book 3, or whether he will end it in the way that he plotted out the story to begin with. (I am certainly not going to ask him.)

I personally favour a planned exit, and a commitment to an ending. I don’t like it when producers, writers and publishers drag things out after the last instalment, to pander to consumers. Unplanned sequels and extensions are rarely as successful as the originals.

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