Friday, September 16, 2022

Quillifer by Walter Jon Williams

I'm vastly less likely to read tight series these days than I used to: I like short books with endings, now that finding time to read is tougher. So there's a whole horde of writers that I read enjoyably back in my SFBC days that I haven't touched since, mostly the trilogy-mongers roaming the wilds of the various fantasy realms.

But I can be pulled back in. Sometimes. For the right reason.

Walter Jon Williams recently finished up a fantasy trilogy about a rogue in a mostly realistic but entirely fictional world, somewhere in that rough territory between Late Medieval and Renaissance, and I'd had a copy of the first book, Quillifer, on my shelf basically since it was published. Williams has been a consistently excellent writer, no matter what he did: from the far-future science fantasy of Metropolitan to the elegant silliness of the Drake Maijstral books, from the widescreen Big Idea SF of Aristoi to the day-after-tomorrow thriller of This Is Not a Game, it's all been great. So I've been wanting to read Quillifer, but unsure when I'd have the time to do so.

I haven't read much of what Williams has done the past decade or so, mostly because he's been busy with series - the "Dread Empire's Fall" trilogy and related books, this trilogy, and even the two Not a Game sequels that I still haven't gotten to. So, eventually, towards the end of a vacation, I insisted to myself that I can't call someone one of my favorite writers if I don't read their books. (This may be a radical take, I admit.)

Quillifer is our hero and narrator, about eighteen as the book starts. He's smart and somewhat sneaky and fond of making up new words. He is also attracted to the ladies, in the focused, hyper-verbal way only a very smart man of eighteen can be. He's apprenticed to a lawyer, and seems to be good at that work, for all that he'd rather not sit in an office and scribble all day long. His father is a prominent local butcher, which implies this is a world in which the middle classes are emerging or maybe have emerged: Quillifer is a rising man, poised to jump into a higher social class than his parents while also doing well financially.

He lives in the provincial city Ethlebight, far from the court of his kingdom of Duisland. And something shattering happens very soon after the beginning of this book, which changes the entire expected path of his life.

All of the other events of Quillifer follow from that shattering event, so I'm going to avoid talking about plot. Quillifer is an enterprising, smart young man, who turns out to have a head for complication and to be almost as good at getting himself into trouble as in getting himself out of it. Which is good, because he is a commoner in a world in which they are considered lesser, in every possible context, than nobles, and a world where everyone's lives are contingent, frequently disrupted, and often short.

That world looks to be entirely realistic at the beginning, and for a long time afterward. But I will say that this is a fantasy novel: the second major change in Quillifer's life we see, around the half-way point of the book, makes that clear. The series as a whole may become more fantasy later, perhaps, but I don't expect it will: there is one element, one central thing, which will continue to affect Quillifer as his life goes on, and I think that's how Williams plans to leave it.

Quiller's story is hugely entertaining: he's somewhat of a rogue, but mostly not a criminal or scoundrel. His voice is more than a little self-serving, but not overly unreliable; we believe this is really what happened, though shaded to make Quillifer look better. And he does get into a lot of things before the five-hundred-plus pages of this book are over. It's somewhat picaresque, in that there's no strong central plot: this is about the Thing That Happens, how Quillifer adapts immediately, his travels coming out of that, and what he finds to do in the places he ends up.

Again, I'm being vague: I don't want to spoil the major plot elements. But Williams is a master; he does all of this well, from big action set-pieces - chasing over roofs or fighting a battle in a village - to character scenes with nobles and outlaws and friends and enemies. Quillifer is an adventurous good time; its world occasionally feints in the direction of grimdark but this is a somewhat lighter, happier book than that, centered around a young man who the reader thinks can probably handle anything this world throws at him as long as he doesn't get too confident or cocky about his abilities. 

Like everything else I've read by Williams, I recommend it highly: this is really good, and really fun. I'm looking forward to the two books that follow.

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