Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy, fantasy, gaslamp
Series: Grand Illusion #2
Published by Tor Books on August 9, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's Website, Publisher's Website, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Bookshop.org, Better World Books
L. E. Modesitt, Jr., bestselling author of Saga of Recluce and the Imager Portfolio, continues his brand new, gaslamp, political fantasy series with Councilor the thrilling sequel to Isolate. Welcome to the Grand Illusion.
Continued poor harvests and steam-powered industrialization displace and impoverish thousands. Protests grow and gather followers.
Against this rising tide of social unrest, Steffan Dekkard, newly appointed to the Council of Sixty-Six, is the first Councilor who is an Isolate, a man invulnerable to the emotional manipulations and emotional surveillance of empaths.
This makes him dangerous.
As unknown entities seek to assassinate him, Dekkard struggles to master political intrigue and infighting, while introducing radical reforms that threaten entrenched political and corporate interests.
The Grand Illusion
The Grand Illusion of the series title seems to revolve around the illusion that political action can “fix” things, whether what needs fixing is a country or a system or a person’s circumstances. Even, in a peculiar way, the weather. Or at least the effects of that weather.
This second book in the series, after last year’s marvelous Isolate, continues to follow Stefan Dekkard on his journey from being a political outsider, merely a security aide to one of the 66 councilors of Guldor, to his new position as a councilor in his own right. In other words, Stefan has gone from being an observer of the process – albeit an active and sometimes intimate one – to someone who is part of how the sausage gets made.
There’s a reason why politics is such a dirty business that no one REALLY wants to learn the truth of the process. Which doesn’t mean that some people don’t have to – and that some people don’t enjoy manipulating that process as much as they are able.
The setup of Guldor as a country, and its government, is a fascinating one. The setting is gaslamp fantasy, so they have steam power and electric power, they can make some unfortunately high-powered military ordinance. They are also in the middle, maybe a bit later than that, into the throes of their Industrial Revolution. Meaning that there is a lot of change and a lot of damage as a result of that change. Land and farming don’t convey the power that they used to. Large commercial interests have large amounts of money and therefor large amounts of influence. Small businesses and artisan business are on the rise but have not yet caught up in the power games being played.
If one thinks of the Guldorian political parties; Landor, Commerce and Craft, as being (very) roughly analogous to the British Tories, Liberals and Labour parties respectively, that’s probably not TOO far off.
Stories that take place in times of great upheaval are always interesting, because there are so many opportunities to go both right and wrong and so many people lining up to push in one direction or another. Guldor is at such a crossroads. The Landor (traditional) party has lost some of its sway but still thinks they could get back to their “good old days”.
The Commerce party has been the ruling party for 30 years, and have gotten so used to being on the top of the heap that they seem to have stopped bothering to cover up their abuses of power. To the point where the monarch of this constitution monarchy was forced to call for new elections – and to the point where voters were so fed up that they were willing to make a radical choice and vote in a Craft Party administration.
A circumstance that the Commerce Party doesn’t merely want but absolutely NEEDS to discredit and outright reverse by ANY means necessary. Not merely the quiet assassinations of Craft Party councilors that has been going on for YEARS at this point, but outright terrorism and revolution.
After all, they have an existing scapegoat for all their actions in the subversive Meritorist movement. Or, perhaps, and much more likely, they created one for just such a potentiality. So far, it’s been working out well for them, even if badly for everyone else.
And the entire situation is about to get a whole lot worse.
Escape Rating A: Just as with the first book in the series, Isolate, the story in Councilor is a story about politics that is told through people. Stefan Dekkard is, on the one hand, a bit of an everyman, and on the other a very singular individual with a specific set of skills, strengths and weaknesses. He is very good at observing the world around him, reaching synthesis of disparate and often contrary bits of information and then swiftly acting on his conclusions. He’s also damn good at keeping himself alive in a situation where, maybe not everyone, but certainly entirely too many people really are out to get him.
At the same time, he’s been an actual Crafter, he attended the military academy and has been a security guard to an active councilor. He’s also an isolate, think psi-null, in a society where nearly everyone can be read by elite psi-users who can both read and influence everyone except Stefan and the relatively rare others like him.
We’re following him and his career because Stefan is always an outsider in his own society and can observe without being psychically influenced or read by anyone who might want to probe his secrets or control his actions. Which does not mean that he doesn’t feel emotions or that he can’t be swayed by them, just no more or less than any of us, and in the same ways that we’re used to. It makes him an excellent surrogate for the reader.
As a new councilor, Stefan faces all of the newbie insecurities, and also starts out not knowing nearly enough to do the job. As he learns, we learn how things are – and are not – working right along with him.
He’s also newly married – to his former security partner – as this book begins. Theirs has always been a relationship of equals, and that does not change now that they are married (The author generally does an excellent job of creating these kinds of relationships and making sure that females are equally represented and equally powerful throughout his stories.)
At the same time, their relationship is changing in ways that they have to adjust to – and we see them do it. All in all, the way this story is told is that we see both the exciting things and the prosaic things and we keep following along because we get involved with the people to whom these events are happening. The story literally pulls the reader along because we want to see how they cope with the next load of feces that hits the oscillating device, whether large or small.
So this is a story about watching people do the best they can in circumstances that are less than ideal but that they know they need to get through anyway. And it does its best, which is very well indeed, to pierce through the veil that obfuscates the grand illusion that politics or political action can make absolutely everyone happy and solve everyone’s problems every time.
While still presenting the idea that a government – and the people who are part of it – doing their very best to act to promote the common weal and not for the interests of themselves and their partisans, will, by its very nature, satisfy more of the population more of the time more fairly than anyone in the game for the pursuit of their own private interests.
This is the second book in the series, and it looks like we’re going to be following Dekkard’s political career wherever it might lead him, most likely, or perhaps hopefully, from his beginning as a security aide in Isolate through his first term as a Councilor and on up the ladder of achievements and setbacks until he reaches some pinnacle that we can’t see from here. But I hope we do in the future books in this series.
Howsomever, based on the title, it’s quite possible that the next book in the series will represent one-step-forward-and-two-steps-back. The title will be Contrarian according to the author’s blog, and I already can’t wait to read it.