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Councilor by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.4 stars

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsIn the perilous world of politics, winning elections is only the first step. And winning doesn’t guarantee that change will come easily, or at all, as those who are used to wielding power are not exactly eager to relinquish it. This is the reality faced by the characters in Councilor, L. E. Modesitt’s equally strong sequel to Isolate, set in a steam-driven secondary world of emotion-channeling empaths, riots, assassins, and seemingly endless paperwork. Running a nation involves a whole lot of procedural tedium punctuated by bursts of complete chaos, and it’s up to those leaders who still have a shred of integrity to hold everything together.

Modesitt has been fascinated by politics all through his career, but the Grand Illusion trilogy puts his focus on the legislative process front and center. There’s nothing here to suggest that Modesitt is using these novels to comment directly on American politics in the post-Trump era. In fact, what’s notable about the Council of Sixty-Six that governs the nation of Guldor is that, unlike the United States, the Guldorans don’t seem to have a habit of filling their legislative bodies with fringe lunatics. But it’s easy to see which parts of the story are rooted in keenly observed political realities. But while the Guldoran ruling classes respect parliamentary norms and election outcomes, that only lasts up to a point, and there are as many political assassination attempts — an alarming number of them successful — as in Putin’s Russia. Modesitt enjoys dramatizing the ways in which politics can make a nation’s problems both better and worse. It is the necessary illusion that keeps everything from falling down — until it doesn’t.

Isolate ended with Steffan Dekkard, security aide for Craft Party councilor Axel Obreduur, finding himself appointed as freshman Craft councilor, the youngest man ever to hold a Council seat. Obreduur is elected Premier, following elections that have ended decades of Commerce Party control of the nation. As Councilor opens, Steffan marries his longtime security partner, the empath Avraal Ysella, and settles into his new appointment.

Despite his lack of experience in office, Steffan is a shrewd and observant thinker, and he and his legal staff draft a bill to, in essence, “defund the police,” severely scaling back the power of the corrupt Ministry of Security. Not only has the Security Ministry exceeded its authority by opening fire on unarmed citizens engaging in protest, but there’s extensive evidence they were mostly being used by Commercer politicians to harass political rivals rather than safeguarding the peace.

Dekkard’s bill passes, but not at considerable cost. He’s targeted by hitmen, forcing him to employ his own empath, a tomboyish young woman named Nincya Gaaroll. Also, in response to the bill’s passage, it appears that unhappy Security agents intend to provoke further unrest from radicals called the New Meritorists. Though this group wants to be seen as a grassroots movement demanding greater transparency from the Council, Steffan has long suspected they’ve been played as useful idiots for the Commercers, who would love nothing more than riots and chaos in the streets to sway public opinion against the Craft Party and towards the Security Ministry, while discrediting Steffan in particular. In Isolate, the New Meritorists bombed fifteen government buildings in a wave of terror, and Steffan knows full well they would not have been able to put their hands on the explosives to do that without help from someone high up in one of the corporacions. Steffan’s chief suspect is Jaime Minz, the ex-security aide for the former Commerce Party Premier.

Modesitt loves dense, dialogue-heavy plots with a slow-burn buildup to big dramatic moments. As in Isolate, much of Councilor unfolds at a deliberate, careful pace. But it’s the kind of story that rewards a patient and committed reader. Modesitt’s meticulous approach to his narrative creates deep immersion for those readers willing to meet the book on its own terms. Scenes in which the Council grills senior officers of the Security Ministry have an authentic vibe, as if you’re watching Congressional hearings live on C-SPAN. And the impressive layers of detail in Modesitt’s worldbuilding are evident in every scene of parliamentary debate, in every mention of the broader world outside the immediate scope of the plot, where industrialization is taking jobs and desperate people pour into the cities from the country as bad weather brings crop failures. It may not be explosive action much of the time, but it conveys a world that feels physical and lived-in. But never fear, when the time is right, Modesitt delivers the explosive action we’ve been waiting for, and some of Councilor’s best moments deliver shocks that are no less impactful than Martin or Abercrombie.

Though he’s not much known for warmth of character, this trilogy features two of the most appealing heroes Modesitt has ever created. Steffan and Avraal are the kind of couple we don’t see often in mainstream fantasy, which is full of starry-eyed romantacy populated by fan-pleasing idealized lovers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But with Steffan and Avraal, we have a believable adult married couple who really are each other’s strength and support. It’s delightfully old fashioned, but by God, if that isn’t a good thing! The way Modesitt focuses on little domestic touches, like opening most chapters with them having breakfast and reading the paper in the house they share with Avraal’s sister, just makes them irresistibly human. If Councilor could have improved in any area, it might have been through giving Avraal a bit more POV. Modesitt has always, no matter how complex the story, chosen one protagonist to be his novels’ sole viewpoint character. Here, it might have been nice to let Avraal share some of that — especially since it’s Avraal who delivers one of the story’s most startling and surprising moments, revealing a new, ruthless edge we haven’t yet seen from her.

With Councilor, The Grand Illusion trilogy is shaping up to be the valedictory work of one of SFF’s most prolific — yet possibly underappreciated — masters.

Followed by Contrarian.