A debut novel from a respected editor, publisher, and author, Gabrielle Harbowy that takes us into the fascinating world of Hellmaw. The main character, Quills, is a delight, wonderfully cynical, self-sufficient, tattoo artist, exile, and powerful daemen.
Harbowy slips easily into the world of novelist with her debut, Of The Essence. Quills may not be human, but she has no love for the politics of the other exiles from her homeworld of Arnaut. But taking advantage of the daemons seeking her services as a tattooist for whom daemons can get far more than ink, Quills has put herself on the radar of the powerful Araunt war exiles. It turns out, keeping to yourself is much more complicated than it seems. The fact that you have no use for the schemes of others, doesn’t mean they have no use for you.
The novel is set in a new shared world, Hellmaw, from The Ed Greenwood Group, (Ed Greenwood of Dungeons and Dragons fame, creator of The Forgotten Realms.) The main character, Quills, brings us a beautiful commentary on human behavior…from a daemon. As a character, Quills is sharp, smart, cynical, and self-sufficient. The beauty of this character isn’t that she’s a “strong female lead,” in the stereotypical way, but she’s independent in a sensible way. Rather than simply throwing off the limitations of her sex when she first arrives on Earth in Medieval Europe by shapeshifting into a man, Quills makes her own place, one that isn’t historically implausible or simply silly in the context of the history of the region. Harbowy doesn’t throw away tradition and convention to make a point, she makes her point by fitting her female lead into a strongly patriarchal society without compromising either the character or plausibility.
In the present day, Quills has made for herself a life in an exile she doesn’t regret. Living among the humans of London Soho, Quills is a tattooist, inking mundane art onto humans, and not-at-all mundane work on her fellow daemon exiles. For payment, each daemon gives Quills a sample of their essence, which carries the power of their individual magic. Quills is able to ink these magical essences into both her own skin, and for other daemons who come to her specifically to purchase powers they would not have otherwise. Considering the vast array of both secrets and magic Quills has been accumulating as insurance for centuries, she would seem to be in a safe position, especially for one determined to stay safely out of everyone else’s scheming. She soon finds that the power-hungry among the exiles have plans for her.
When she’s set up to take the fall for the murder of one of the exiled warlords, Quills finds herself in a desperate race across her adopted country of England, tracking down and solving the clues that will lead her to the real killer, before the warlord’s allies come for their revenge.
Though Quills has never been averse to enthralling and using humans to her ends, she finds herself relying on a human whose strength of character and determination are the perfect foil for Quills’ strengths, and weaknesses. The evolution of their relationship is a lovely and natural progression that becomes something close to magical for Quills when she needs it most. Alongside this are set the varied relationships Quills has developed with her fellow exiles, the sort of many layered, complex constructions that can only develop over centuries.
Harbowy writes with the precision of an editor, and the sensibility and passion of a writer. Quills brings us into a fascinating new world as a character you’ll want to follow through until the end. I hope very much that Quills will appear again in this shared world setting. Of The Essence is the seventh book in the Hellmaw universe, a great place to start or as the next one to pick up. A highly recommended work from a talented and promising author.