Quill is a new type of fantasy for me, but one that I feel has been lacking in my life. I have a fondness for the colonial periods of our world history, despite the innumerable horrors inflicted upon native peoples during the imperialist rampage. There is a sense of adventure and discovery to this time period that is unique an era when humanity learned how to sail but had not yet discovered how to do it safely. The metaphorical unfurling of the world map must have been exciting in ways that perhaps future generations will feel about space travel. AC Cobble, in his first Cartographer book, captures this sense of adventure, but instills it with magic and floating islands and spirits, and it is a successful merging of these ideas. Quill has its fair share of flaws, some that niggled at me more than others, but on the whole, I think it is well worth reading, and I am eager to see where it goes.
Oliver Wellesley is a rake, albeit one with royal blood. When he isn’t bedding nubile noble twins, he’s out mapping the world, and to his credit he is good at his job (on both accounts). Oliver’s father is the king of fantasy England, a land called Enhover, and it is apparent from the start that Cobble’s world-building is strongly dependent on its parallels to our own. This was, in fact, such a strong component of the setting that I was worried it would reflect too much our own history. Thankfully, my initial misgivings were soothed and Cobble does eventually set his world apart. In structure, it very much looks like 18th century Europe, but there are enough details to give it its own flavor, and this is vital to this type of work.
The beginning of Quill begins with a grisly murder, and Oliver is called on to investigate it due to the noble personages involved. The Church of Enhover, a very Roman Catholic-like institution, sends its “Priestess” Samantha along with him. There is sorcery involved, and the Church’s role in Cobble’s world is one of stamping down the magic arts in favor of faith. There is an immediate repoire between Oliver and Sam, and though there are some banter-jokes between them that fall extremely flat (such as a joke about the title of Duke and whether it’s a name or not), their relationship evolves into one of depth that is engaging to follow. They make a good team, and it isn’t long before they are both wrapped up in a massive conspiracy involving the crown, the church, and the fate of sorcery itself.
I like quite a bit about Quill. It completely captures the adventurous spirit of the colonial age, to the point where I found myself smiling as characters would look out on the horizon at some new landscape, wishing I too were on that airship discovering new lands. The amount of exploration is limited to places that, at least, Oliver has already visited, but the spirit is there, and I hope to see more exploration in further novels in the series. Quill is set up as a murder mystery, but by the end it is clear that there is a larger story at work here, and Cobble has a multitude of options open to him in exploring his built world.
There are also aspects of Quill that I found difficult to stomach. Cobble calls the book sexy on his website, in comparison to his other works, but I found much of the sexual descriptions downright pornographic. I have no qualms with this, it just did not fit the rest of the narrative very well and felt disharmonic. The character of Sam is also consistently put down and derided, despite proving herself time and time again, and while I understand this is a novel set in an parallel era when women were seen as little more than objects, I still cringed every time someone called Sam “girl.” It happens more times than I could count. And this is fantasy, a fantasy where a woman fairly easily becomes captain of an airship and where the clergy seem to be held in high esteem. Calling one of the main characters “girl” over and over again does not feel in line with the world. Aside from that, the writing itself is not without flaw, and there were many times throughout the book that I saw the absence of professional editing. It is self-published, but that isn’t necessarily a free pass when it comes to mistakes and syntax errors.
As I said, I liked Quill, and I would read more of this world that Cobble is building (cobbling?). It strikes a nice balance between world-building and plot, and the main characters are genuinely likable and worth following. There are enough unique fantasy hooks to make this stand out, and the setting is almost untouched in the genre even if it remains very Euro-centric in its roots.