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

Buy from Barnes & NobleBuy from IndieBoundBuy from PowellsL.E. Modesitt, Jr. has published over 75 novels in a long and distinguished SFF career. At the age of 78, he shows no sign of slowing down with his series The Grand Illusion, a political drama set in a steampunk/gaslamp secondary world in which rapid industrial advancements are resulting in wealth inequality, job loss, pollution, social turmoil and massive corruption. In the nation of Guldor, Steffan Dekkard works as one-half of the personal security detail for Councilor Axel Obreduur. Dekkard’s partner, Avraal Ysella, is an empath, with the ability to both detect the presence of people by picking up on their emotions, as well as project emotions onto others. Dekkard, on the other hand, is an isolate, naturally able to block his emotions from being picked up or affected by empaths. Together, they make a formidable team.

Guldor has three political parties. The Craft party represents artisans and the working classes, and Obreduur is its leader. The Commerce party, who hold the majority, represent big businesses — called corporacions — and are openly plutocratic and authoritarian. The Landor party more or less represents old money and are the most socially conservative of the bunch, the kind of people who will disown their daughters for pursuing their own independence. Obreduur has been very effective at increasing the number of Craft seats on the Council — so effective, in fact, that he’s been targeted by more than one assassination attempt, each time thwarted by Dekkard and Ysella.

Isolate explores a country in the midst of major political sea change. What I found most compelling about it, and what made it so believable, is how Modesitt shows that it’s never one momentous event that makes people finally decide they’re fed up and strike back against their government, but an ongoing series of seemingly small crimes and injustices that actually aren’t small at all, just the kind of thing the general public can ignore (especially in a nation where the press is not completely free).

Here, everything starts with a scandal involving illegal coal mining leases. Then, Ysella’s brother-in-law, working for a firm building a new naval facility, disappears after he discovers something suspicious regarding a sudden replacement of the building plans. It all looks like Commercer corruption is ramping up, with corporacions resorting to outright criminality in stamping out smaller competitors who offer better work at better bids, while complicit Commercer politicians enjoy pocketing a little graft.

This has led to violent protests and even outright domestic terrorism by a radical underground group called the New Meritorists. Neither Obreduur nor Dekkard support the rioting, but Dekkard in particular understands the anger motivating it, over the way the Commerce-led government has found ways to work around provisions in the Great Charter, Guldor’s constitution, specifically designed to prevent corrupt behavior. There’s a solid chance that the existing Council could be dissolved, and new elections held, which might give the Craft party the chance at a majority for the first time in 200 years, especially given the increasing participation of women.

While it’s tempting to think it, Modesitt isn’t offering the novel as any kind of explicit commentary on the current state of American politics, though it’s easy to pick out where he’s been inspired by it. Many science fiction writers are overtly political, whether it’s Ken Macleod on the left or Heinlein and Jerry Pournelle on the right. But Modesitt writes stories about politics that aren’t polemics. He’s a writer who has always been, first and foremost, an idea man. He’s interested in systems and laws and praxis, and how nations either succeed or fail to solve their structural problems. The “grand illusion” of the series’ title is the idea that a nation can preserve any of the noble ideals it was founded upon, and not allow them to be abandoned or betrayed, without both great struggle and taking the long view. Everyone wants massive change right away, and they all believe they can make it happen. In reality, it always takes years, even generations. Sometimes you have to compromise or play both ends against the middle. But even slow change is worth fighting for, and integrity and conviction need constant vigilance.

Now I’ll be the first to tell you that Modesitt, even though he’s had a very successful career, is absolutely not a writer for everyone. In a manner similar to Robin Hobb, he’s never in any particular hurry to get his stories where they’re going. His books are long and talky. It isn’t exactly that he infodumps, but he writes in great detail about mundane, day-to-day work routines. He likes to describe what every character is wearing and how the rooms they hold banquets and take committee meetings in are decorated. This level of meticulously detailed writing has not, to be honest, always worked to his advantage, and his less good books can be every bit as dull as they sound.

But somehow, in Isolate, everything clicks. The story is among the best work Modesitt has done, intellectually satisfying in a way speculative fiction rarely is anymore. Even though the book runs 850 pages in paperback, Modesitt’s writing maximizes our immersion. If you’re someone who loves intricate or even obsessive worldbuilding, this book will give you such an overdose of it you’ll need rehab. I really felt like I was living in this novel, not just reading it.

And the story is grounded in two of the most appealing characters Modesitt has ever written. True, he does like to write the same kind of protagonist each time. His heroes always tend to be hyper-competent, very rational, who approach every problem by diligently thinking it through. But Dekkard feels like a real guy, even if he’s often too serious and professional. Coming from a family of prominent artisans, but lacking talent himself, Dekkard pivoted into his security job even though everyone, especially Ysella, lets him know he has far greater potential. He’s smart and does what needs to be done, but he knows his weaknesses and shortcomings, and he has no ego problem in letting himself be guided by a smart and more experienced woman. I must confess, I even enjoyed their romance, possibly because it’s refreshing to see a couple of adults navigating their long-simmering feelings for each other in the midst of adversity, instead of cheesy fantasy-novel instalove. And the way Modesitt takes such a chaste approach to the whole subject of romance is actually charming.

If you aren’t put off by a humongous tome that requires patience, thought and commitment, a book that’s the exact opposite of a light read, that wants to challenge you and doesn’t mind if you argue for or against its ideas, Isolate will transport you to a rich and deeply tactile world just enough like our own that you’ll be thinking about both long after it’s over.

Followed by Councilor.