Walter Jon Williams is one of my favorite SF authors.


Quillifer by Walter Jon Williams. Saga Press, 2017. 530 pages. $27.99

So much of genre fiction ends up being recombinant boredom. But Walter Jon Williams has an uncanny ability to take any particular sub-genre of SF and do something entertaining, interesting and sometimes even fresh. He’s not unique in this ability, but he is unusual for such talents in that his work is generally worth re-reading sometime later, maybe on some snowy morning or in a lazy summer backyard.

Quillifer is Williams’ excursion into the sword & sorcery sub-genre. I admit that when I first encountered this volume at the Chicago Public Library (I have too little income to actually buy books.), I had my doubts. It’s big. It provoked a flashback to my one library encounter, long ago, with a similarly huge first volume of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series. Martin was vaguely familiar but the book was so big and life is so short. I took a pass and actually haven’t regretted it. Quillifer is a first volume too. But this is Walter Jon Williams.

Nonetheless, I came near to setting the book aside in the early pages of it. Williams has the story narrated in first person by the protagonist, Quillifer, a young adult male in a society somewhat resembling 14th or 15th Century northeastern Europe / Britain, including leftover remnants of an Empire though instead of Romans we have, apparently, a different human species. At the beginning, Quillifer’s story has a commedia dell’arte quality to it, reminding me of Brian Aldiss’ The Malacia Tapestry: a fine book except that the misadventures in the complicated lives of horny young men in a gender delimited society don’t much interest this geezer. Fortunately for me, Williams begins tossing plot challenges at this somewhat self-absorbed, manipulative adolescent, the result reminding me a bit of Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series: a coming of age story complicated by a society and a time disoriently unfamiliar yet familiar to the reader, though maybe without Wolfe’s spiritual dimension. It’s also interesting that the protagonist is a lawyer in the making. It’s an unusual choice, but why not? One of Michael Swanwick’s novels has a bureaucrat as the protagonist hero, for example.

And that’s what this volume is: Quillifer’s coming of age. It’s more sword than sorcery, though the violence is unheroic and consequential for Quillifer. There is little magic and that is mostly in the form of the unwanted and seriously complicating attention of a goddess, a nymph. (It wouldn’t surprise me if, in future volumes, Quillifer comes to the attention of additional and complicating divinities.) But I think the secret sauce for this tale is the authenticity of Quillifer’s feudal world. It works in ways that remind me very much of what I’ve read about medieval France and England. It turns out that Williams also writes historical fiction under the name Jon Williams.

For me, the one really weak aspect of the story is the circumstance of its narration. It’s begun as being told, as a flashback, to a young woman, a woman presumably as young and inexperienced as Quillifer was at the beginning of the tale. Before dipping into the flashback, the tone is that of a weary old adult. Williams revisits this setup a very few times during this first volume and returns to at the end of the volume. Fine. Except that while Quillifer has grown up in many ways by the end, he’s not the geezer he sounds like at the beginning. It’s not even convincing as mansplaining. Mansplaining, at least, is something you might expect from young Quillifer.

Life is short and this book is long and the series longer, but make time for it. You’ll enjoy.

Author: rmichaelroman

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