Sea of Quills is the sequel to the extremely successful Mountain of Daggers book by Seth Skorkowsky. Both are part of the Tales of the Black Raven series, which follows the adventures of Ahren, a sailor turned cat burglar who has managed to become the world's most infamous rogue. The books are set in a Hyborian-style fantasy setting distantly related to the Renaissance but including many qualities from other time periods as well as both monsters and magic.
I became aware of Seth's work when I first contracted my work with Ragnarok Publications and surveyed their back catalog to see what other author's work was like. I purchased a copy of Damoren before picking up Mountain of Daggers then this volume sight unseen. While some were not to my taste, I found some real gems like Seth's, Rob J. Hayes, and Kenny Soward's work. I have yet to read anything I dislike by Seth Skorkowsky and consider this series to be his best work.
Tales of the Black Raven is a retro sword and sorcery story which manages to invoke Lankhmar, Conan, and Elric while maintaining its own unique style. Given Conan, Fafhrd, and the Gray Mouser were all thieves at various points in their career, the combination of heist story and adventure drama works surprisingly well. The books are collections of short stories loosely tied together by chronology but, really, read quite well independently.
Sea of Quills picks up not long after the events of the first book, following the Black Raven at the height of his career. He's achieved the pinnacle of his fame but the result of this is he's now directly hunted by bounty hunters who are getting more and more talented. Worse, Ahren's reputation is proving to be a fragile thing and he must constantly strive to prove himself in order to remain the world's most famous thief. You know, something most thieves are sensible enough to avoid becoming. We also get hints of the fact the Tyenee, the secret mafia-like organization he is a member of, is exploiting him rather than serving as his patron.
One thing I liked about the book is it places a greater emphasis on the sea than previous volumes. While never actually getting to the point of Ahren being a pirate, given he's been established repeatedly as a cat burglar who is a sailor rather than a combination of the two, the importance of the ocean to his trade gets more emphasized this time around. We get journeys to foreboding islands, smuggling, sea-voyages, and individuals who manage to rob the Tyenee before escaping due to having better ships.
Another thing I appreciated is Seth Skorkowsky is very good at writing femme fatales and female characters. While Ahren's love interest was murdered in the previous books, something I think unnecessary, there's a large number of capable but lovely women in each of the stories. There's even a return of his most persistent foe/love interest, who I wish had been in more than just one story this volume. Skorkowsky's women are sexy as well as capable, those who choose to be with Ahren doing so on their own terms, which is a nice change of pace and showing how values have changed since the days of the old pulps.
The world of the Black Raven is well-realized and vivid in its descriptions. Its a setting of endless coastal cities filled with traders, foreign cultures, and exotic goods ruled by corrupt merchant princes Secrets, lies, and intrigue go hand-in-hand with mystical curses as well as bizarre artifacts. Given the Black Raven blasphemes against one of the very-real gods this book, I wonder if we're going to see him suffer a magical punishment in future volumes. We've already seen our hero isn't immune to the dangers of magic and pride when dealing with the gods is a common foible for Sword and Sorcery heroes.
I'm interested in the progression of Ahren's story because while all of the stories are self-contained, it's fairly obvious the overall narrative is progressing. Much like Conan eventually progressing to become a King or Elric's looming dark fate, things are starting to happen to Ahren and it's going to be interesting to see how this all comes together. In the meantime, these are just very fun fantasy stories for both fans of traditional as well as grimdark fair.
Does the book have flaws? Well, it doesn't really resolve any of the outstanding plots related to Ahren's feud with the demon-worshiping cult and witch's pregnancy from the previous volume. That plot doesn't seem so much as abandoned as un-referenced, which is strange given the life-changing effects it had on him. Ahren's emotional development also tends to consist of "badass, mysterious, and concerned with his reputation above all other things." If you're looking for epic characterization, this isn't the series for you. Still, I was able to appreciate the book for itself rather than wanting it to be, say, George R.R. Martin.
Of the stories within, I've got to say I preferred "Treasure of Bogen Helm" best as its a subversion of the typical treasure map tale, which takes note of the very real reason WHY you don't bury your treasure versus spending it. I also liked the story "The Second Gift" which sets Ahren against an opponent with an insurmountable magical edge. None of the stories are bad, though, and have a nice combination of villainous nobles, rival thieves, evil pirates, and semi-justified lawmen after Ahren this time. There's even an homage to The Princess Bride, I believe, with a bunch of screaming eels menacing our hero.
In conclusion, this is yet another great collection of short stories by an author whose work I love and I recommend it to everyone who likes roguish fantasy heroes. If they ever do another volume of Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Thieves, they had better include one of Ahren's adventures.