If you like my Last Days of Atlantis series, I think it’s a good bet you’ll like Inker and Crown, by Megan O’Russell. They’re both multi-character-arc epic fantasies with a flawed scribe as a main character. And they both have multiple related organizations that dominate the political structure of their worlds–the twelve temples of Atlantis, in the case of my books, and the seven guilds of Ilbrea, in the case of O’Russell’s.
In Inker and Crown, Lord Karron is the head of the Map-Maker’s Guild, one of the seven powerful guilds in the land of Ilbrea. He has one blood daughter, Allora, and five adopted children. The six children grew up together in Lord Karron’s mansion and now, in roughly their late teens and early twenties, remain so close they’re known around the capital city of Ilaria as the Karron clan. This despite the fact that they’ve joined various guilds–the lame but gifted Adrial is already the second-in-command and designated successor to the head of the Scribe’s guild; Niko and Mara have joined the Map-Maker’s guild; Kai is in the royal navy (which counts as a guild), and Tham the royal army (likewise). As for Allora herself, she remains at her aged father’s house to take care of him and assist with his extensive social and diplomatic duties. She is also a close confidante of Princess Illia, sister of the king.
It is Princess Illia’s just-announced betrothal to the prince of neighboring kingdom Wyrain that sets in motion the action of the book. The marriage will take place in two years, when the queen turns seventeen, and the king orders the guilds to take on several missions in preparation. The map-maker’s guild will need to map the Eastern Mountains between the two kingdoms to identify routes for the new roads that will be necessary to carry the increased trade that will result from the union, while a separate expedition will enter the mysterious White Mountains to the north to ensure no hostile peoples are lurking, ready to attack and spoil the ceremony. The navy will need to find a way around the Horn to the south to open a new ocean route between Ilbrea and Wyrain. The army will support the map-making expeditions. And Adrial is specially chosen to produce an illuminated history of Ilbrea for Princess Illia to take with her to Wyrain, a huge undertaking due to its hand-written lettering and hand-drawn illustrations.
Unfortunately, the common people have long been upset that the Guilds take up so much of the kingdom’s resources, providing lavish lifestyles for their members and the royal family, while they suffer food shortages in extensive slums outside the privileged Guild quarter. The distraction of the wedding and dispersal of manpower on the various expeditions leaves fewer soldiers and sailors to keep the peace, and an underground resistance movement takes advantage. A bomb’s explosion disrupts the ceremony inaugurating the Eastern Mountain mapping expedition, nearly killing Niko before he’s even able to set out. Adrial actually is injured, and is rushed to the Sorcerers’ tower (home of another guild) for healing just in time.
I think my favorite arc of the various main characters is Adrial’s, the scribe with a special project. For his history book for the princess, he wants to use the best, most vivid inks. However, he has no need to visit the various ink provisioners in the city, as a young common woman with multi-hued hair named Ena climbs up a balcony to interrupt a party attended by the Karron clan to tell Adrial she will supply his inks. He is taken aback, but when Ena visits the scribe shop the next day, her samples are more vibrant than any inks he’s ever seen. It turns out she uses only natural, sometimes magical ingredients, and she begins taking the lamed scribe on journeys outside the city to find the rare plants and things she needs. Adrial is smitten, and so, possibly, is Ena, although she would never admit it. Their journeys become more about spending time with each other as the book progresses.
The writing style of Inker and Crown is buoyant, reflecting the energies and passions of its characters. The characters are well rounded and their relationships with each other fully realized. If the book has a weakness, it may be the world-building. The Way of Kings this is not. It seems almost basic–like O’Russell took a fantasy map and slapped a couple cities, mountain ranges, and seas on it, then drew up some guilds and assigned each one a color and a patron saint. We don’t get many hints that there are rich histories, elaborate social customs, a thoroughly thought-out magic system (we get only a bit on how things work at the Sorcerers’ Guild), unusual clothing, etc. But I can’t say for sure–after all, there are three more books, and there’s lots of time to introduce us to more of this world. It may be that Megan O’Russell simply wanted to give us a quick-paced introduction to the world of Ilbrea and will fill us in later.
In any case, I’m likely to find out, because I’m almost certainly coming back for book two. Whatever Inker and Crown might lack in depth of world-building, it more than makes up for with its sympathetic characters and fast-moving plot. And there are some indications from events that take place on the map-making expeditions that there is indeed more to the magic in Ilbrea than the characters fully realize, so maybe we’ll get some of that world-building after all. In any case, I can definitely recommend this book to my readers.