One moment in Quillifer, Walter Jon Williams’ lavish fantasy novel, stands apart from the grand opulence, banquet hall intrigue and humming action that sweep the reader along in the rest of the book. Fresh out of jail and caked in blood, the narrator and namesake of the book surveys his apartment. It’s full of trinkets, trophies, keepsakes and memories of a young life lived to the extreme thanks to a wild sense of ambition that’s taken him clear across the world. But instead of glory, he sees meaningless things, cluttering a life he fears has barely been lived at all. It’s these imperfections in Quillifer that make him so fun to follow.
The first book in a planned series, Quillifer overflows with richness and enchantment. There’s a lot to build on for future books, but it’s Quillifer himself that’s the star of the show. In a genre dominated by ensemble casts like that of George R. R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, it’s refreshing to rely on just one voice.
When we first join Quillifer, he’s using every bit of his good looks, innate charm and abundant self-regard to strut and preen through his well-appointed life as a lawyer in Ethelbight, an ocean port in the country of Duisland. When sea raiders sack the town and kill his family, Quillifer’s life is upended as he finds himself riding to the capital of Selford to ask the monarch for help (and build a career for himself).
Williams, known for a long catalogue of Nebula Award-nominated science fiction, dives headlong into epic fantasy with high-spirited gusto. He renders each scene of court life in Selford with ever-increasing visual detail, giving each castle and royal courtier their own decadently fashioned identity. The colorful friends and enemies Quillifer meets along his way enter and leave his life like guests at a party rather than tools in a save-the-world quest. And at the center of it all is Williams' wonderful protagonist—a flawed man, learning to live with his faults in a world destined to reinforce them.