This is an unbiased review of an ARC provided by the author.
tl;dr: ‘Quill’ is an excellent fantasy/steampunk story which is energetic and riveting though it takes a few mis-steps.
‘Quill’ is the first book in a new series - ‘The Cartographer’ by A.C. Cobble (author of the Benjamin Ashwood series). It is a fantasy wrapped in steampunk inside a buddy cop story - except that in this universe sorcery (spirits) is present alongside the industrial revolution.
Duke Oliver Wellesley, the youngest son of the king, and Samantha, a church assassin/exorcist, team up to solve a murder which seems to involve the occult. This leads them on a chase across the empire and the hints of a deeper conspiracy
‘Quill’ has multiple things going for it - it has a decent murder mystery, it has a nice spooky atmosphere with a dash of Lovecraft and it has a good buddy cop movie vibe between our protagonists - Oliver and Sam.
When an author usually tries to blend multiple genres or ideas together, the whole is not always better than the sum of the parts. The most common symptom is abrupt shifts in tone in the story. I found that this genre blending worked quite well in the book.
The world of ‘Quill’ is an interesting take on post-industrial revolution Britain. Railways and Airships exist but while the rail is powered by steam engines, the airships are powered by levitating stones. Similarly, while explosives and guns exist, spirits and spells are also used. This juxtaposition of technology and magic makes for a fascinating what-if kind of world.
Other institutions like the East India Company (called just the Company here) exist here and they dominate everything just like the original did. It seems like the equivalent of the first war of independence in India in 1857 (I refuse to call it the Mutiny) did not occur and as a result, the Company is able to retain its preeminence. The Church exists too and it seems to be more Catholic than Anglican in its dealings.
This history is revealed in stages and it adds to the richness of the world.
But, that said, I come to the first issue I have with the book. Colonialism. I get that it happened and the Western nations prospered because of it. But, at the same time, the rest of the world suffered and is still suffering from it. So, I would have liked to see a bit more nuanced approach to the way the author reveals the effects of the Empire colonizing native lands. There are hints as to some negative consequences but for the most part, it looks like the story is just glossing over some of the more insalubrious facts. But, yes, this is a fictional story and so I will leave it at that. Most readers from the West will probably not even notice it.
Oliver and Samantha are the two protagonists. Before I get into the main characters and their arc, let me first address the other issue with the story.
Almost all the main women characters in the book are portrayed as sex starved maniacs. This is a theme that pervades the entire story and it gets old real soon. In fact, Samantha’s introductory scene made me go WTF. I actually had to check to ensure I wasn’t reading some derivative of ‘Gor’ or the like at that point. She has sex with a total stranger just because he wants it and it is never explained why. In every other way though, Samantha is a badass. The other woman characters too are painted with similar brushes - they all seem too needy about sex. This portrayal of women is the biggest flaw with the book and it should be rectified in forthcoming books in the series.
The sex aside, Samantha comes across as a confident woman, albeit one who is venturing out on her own for the first time. She makes her own decisions and kicks ass where needed.
Oliver is, on the surface, a dissolute noble, like one of those young men from Wodehouse - a Wooster for example. The difference being that the sex is mentioned explicitly here. But as the story progresses, we see the complex personality that lies underneath the facade. While he does not kick as much butt as Sam does, he can easily hold his own.
Oliver and Samantha are two characters that readers will enjoy learning more about.
The other characters in the book are decent too. Some motivations and certain character choices could have been explained better though.
Plot, Pacing & Writing
I came into this book thinking that the murder would just be a short stop on the way to a larger conflict. But, I was pleasantly surprised to see the amount of detection that Sam & Oliver do to solve it. They use logic and hard work with some luck and behind the scenes manipulation to discover the truth behind the murder. The way they worked reminded me of how Harry Bosch works in his stories - dotting all the ‘i’s and crossing all the ’t’s.
But, yes, there is a larger scheme afoot - it weaves in and out throughout the main story. There appear to be conspirators at the highest levels who can manipulate events to their liking. This aspect of the story is also done well with not much being revealed in the book.
You know how sometimes you get lost in a book and its world. That happened to me in this book. I think it is due to the decent pacing as well as the author’s easy to read style (along with the world building, characters etc.). I never got bored reading this book and I think I read it in a couple of long sessions.
In summary, ‘Quill’ is an excellent story which is energetic and riveting though it takes a few mis-steps.
I have no hesitation in recommending it. I loved it and I will be looking forward to reading the next instalment in this series.
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