David WaltonDavid Walton is the author of Quintessence (which I gave a 4.5 last year) and its recent sequel Quintessence Sky (3.5), along with Terminal Mind, which won the 2008 Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback science-fiction novel that year. David recently took some time out amidst all the hectic holiday activity to answer some questions and let us know what he is currently working on, (including I was glad to learn, a third book in the QUINTESSENCE series). More information can also be found at his website. Comment below for a chance to win a hardback copy of Quintessence.

Bill Capossere: Let’s start with what clearly was not intended with your latest novel, Quintessence Sky, which was to self-publish it. Can you speak to that process: what happened to bring it about, your feelings about that, how you decided to go the self-publishing route, and what positives and negatives you found going down that path?

David Walton: Tor originally bought just the one novel, Quintessence, so they were under no obligation to buy the sequel. I wrote it anyway, since I had always envisioned QUINTESSENCE as a series of three books. My editor at Tor even liked the sequel; the decision not to publish it was a financial one. Tor as a business wasn’t willing to continue to invest money in a series that hadn’t found a large audience. (Although they will be bringing out Quintessence in trade paperback format in March.)

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI was very disappointed, naturally. Once Tor passed on it, there was basically no chance that another big publisher would pick the series up partway through. Fortunately, self-publishing is becoming a viable alternative for professional authors, not just a vanity thing. There are some very talented authors who are publishing books on their own, with attractive covers, and doing quite well with them. I’m hoping that as I build a readership with other books, people will return to the QUINTESSENCE series. Who knows? I may even do better with books 2 and 3 by bringing them out on my own. In the meantime, though, I’m sorry not to have the fantastic artwork, bookstore distribution, and credibility that Tor gave me. I hope those who liked the first one will be inclined to buy based on the author (who hasn’t changed!) rather than the publisher.

OK, let’s hop into the story itself. Before we go too far, I wrote in my review that this seemed like a bridge book in that I’m expecting a third one to follow along. But that’s an assumption on my part, as I don’t know your plans — is there a third one in the wings and if so, was this always planned as a long-running story? And if yes, did your original plan change at all as you wrote QUINTESSENCE or in response to the reaction?

Yes! I always envisioned a trilogy. I wanted Quintessence to stand alone as a single book, but there was always a three-book story arc, in which the characters return to England with quintessence and resolve the political and religious struggles that sent them off to the island in the first place. The third novel is called Quintessence Crown, and I expect to be self-publishing that one as well.

In the original, if I’m recalling correctly, you had serial settings, beginning in England, moving on to a sea voyage, and then to the island of Horizon. Here we go back and forth between settings. What made you decide on that structure and did it offer any difficulties in terms of balance, pacing, etc.?

Because the story arc of the trilogy ultimately returns to Europe, I wanted to keep the reader involved in the events going on there. Not including King Philip and Queen Mary in book 2 would be like if The Empire Strikes Back had just taken place on Dagobah with Luke and Yoda without a glimpse of what the Emperor or Darth Vader were doing. Since the point-of-view characters were all on the island, however, I needed a new character in Europe to connect the two distant places together. I ultimately enjoyed the structure quite a bit, because the reader “knows” that the main characters have to come together at some point in the book, even though they are separated by thousands of miles, but it seems scientifically impossible. Which implies that quintessence can do more than you think it can. It’s like the barrels of sand and rocks in the first book: you know they have to turn back into diamonds eventually, and you keep reading to find out when and how it will happen.

Quintessence Sky by David WaltonNot only are your QUINTESSENCE novels set in an historical era, but you also make use of many real-life characters, some well-known (Elizabeth, John Dee, Mary, etc.) and other lesser-known ones. Can you explain your feelings about fidelity to history when employing real-life characters?

Well, the “slight” change that the Earth is actually flat gives me a great deal of leeway with changing history. It’s not exactly a small change, and the fact that the Americas weren’t discovered in 1492 would have had a huge effect on Europe in the 1550s, particularly on the relative power and wealth of the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and Portugal. My intent is to preserve the basic personalities of historical characters, even though I am radically changing many of their life experiences.

Of course, the personalities of Mary, Elizabeth, and Philip have been hotly contested by scholars over the years. Traditionally Mary and Philip have both been presented as villains, and Elizabeth as a heroine, though by no means always. The day of Mary’s death was celebrated as a holiday in England for two hundred years, while Elizabeth’s reign has been lauded as England’s Golden Age. There’s a lot more to them than these stereotypes however, and I hope to show a little more of the complexity of their personalities in Quintessence Crown, in which they will all figure significantly.

Mostly, I want to be true enough to history that historians could read the books and be satisfied by what they read, both in terms of what is true to history, and to what I intentionally change. If you are familiar, for instance, with Mary’s two false pregnancies, you may enjoy the fact that quintessence turns her false pregnancy into a true one, and she actually gives birth to a child. In Quintessence Crown, that child will turn out to be rather more than just an ordinary baby. A lot of the true-to-history feel comes from the details of how people lived, what they wore, what they ate, how they traveled, and of course the philosophical and religious struggles they had, and I’ve worked hard to get these right.

Speaking of John Dee, he is such a fascinating person in real life: alchemist, court politician, magician, mathematician… He’s the kind of character who could easily take over a novel, yet you were pretty restrained in your use of him in this book — was that a conscious decision?

John Dee seemed both too easy and too hard for me to want to make him a major character. In book 1, I didn’t include him at all, even though I had characters who were alchemists, courtiers, magicians, and/or mathematicians. At one point, I considered making Dee a point-of-view character, but I wanted to be free to make my major scientist/philosophers the way I wanted them, without being tied down to a real historical person. In book 2, however, with the amount of time I was going to be spending in the royal court of Philip and Mary, I felt I could hardly ignore him. He would have been there, and there’s no way investigations into quintessence would have been going on without his interest and knowledge. So, I gave him a role I thought appropriate to his character and position, without allowing him to take over the book.

When we last spoke, you talked about how in Quintessence, you hadn’t tried to draw any explicit parallel between the Europeans arriving at Horizon and encountering the Manticores and real-world encounters between European explorers/colonists, though you acknowledged that “clearly some of the conflicts they face with the arriving Europeans are similar.” Did you still try to avoid such explicit parallels in Quintessence Sky? For my part, it is pretty much impossible for me not to think of the European impact on the Native Americans or on Africans when I read one of the Manticores telling a character:

You humans have changed everything, our security, our way of life. Hundreds have died because of you. Ancient memory fountains destroyed. The structures of tribes and families shifts, some following human ways, some hating them, but all revolving around you. All choices must now consider, what will the humans do? And how many more will come? Everything is different. And you do not understand why some would hate you?

This is one of those cases where reader reaction to book #1 affected the writing of book #2. In the first book, as I told you, I wasn’t focused on the parallel between native populations from human history and the manticores on the island. After hearing from many readers, however, I realized that the parallel was unavoidable, and I included some exploration of the manticore perspective on humans. I tried to show the range of reaction that real indigenous peoples had to the arrival of European settlers, from those who hated their presence and did everything they could to kill or at least oust them, to those who immersed themselves entirely in the culture of their conquerors, adopting a new language, clothing, and religion in response to what they saw as inevitable.

In Quintessence, the conflict between science and religion seemed to be one of the uppermost themes, while in Quintessence Sky, though that tension remains, we seem more focused on an open conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism, and an inner conflict between what I would call religion and faith, especially in the mind and soul of de Tavera. It seemed that even as he is using the scientific method to delve into the mysteries of quintessence, there is almost a kind of parallel set of experiments going on with regard to his views on Protestantism and Catholicism. He has his original stance (or “theory”), but then he begins collecting evidence in the form of his interactions with the royal representatives of each faith — Philip and Elizabeth. And slowly, over repeated “experiments,” he starts to question that starting assumption. If not his actual Catholicism, some of the assumptions or presumptions his faith had conditioned in him. Does that seem a fair description of his character, and can you speak to the role of the outer and inner religious conflicts in the novel as you see them?

It’s interesting that you differentiate between the themes of science vs. religion (Quintessence) and religion vs. faith (Quintessence Sky). I see the distinction, though I wouldn’t have thought of it that way. In Quintessence, there is a solidly atheistic character (Sinclair) who is contrasted with a solidly religious character (Marcheford), and Parris and others have to navigate those waters to come to terms with the impact of science on their religion. In Quintessence Sky, however, we have a character that begins as a solidly religious character, but who — to use your terms — gives up his religion without giving up his faith. That is, he gives up the unreasoning, blind faith of a man who maintains belief by pretending life is more black-and-white and obvious than it really is, for a more thoughtful, reasoned faith that isn’t afraid to face challenges to what he believes and think through them.

This, more than the conflict between Catholicism and Protestantism per se, is what I wanted to explore in Quintessence Sky. If you hold to your religious beliefs because you refuse to look seriously at anything that might challenge them, then do you really believe? Tavera does allow his beliefs to be challenged — both in terms of physical/scientific reality, and in terms of the characters of Philip and Elizabeth — and comes away not with a weakened faith, but with a strengthened one. Tavera was definitely my favorite character in this novel, and his internal struggles in some respects mirror my own (more on that in the next two questions!).

My view of the SF/F genre as a whole actually follows the “experiment” pattern you point out. I think of an SF/F author as being like a scientist with a new phenomenon to study. The scientist might look at his phenomenon under different wavelengths of light, or in low temperatures, or in a vacuum, and with each view, he understands a little more about what the phenomenon is and how it works. In the same way, the SF/F author puts his subject — humanity — in different imaginary and impossible settings, or with other intelligent creatures, and in so doing, shows a little more with each story about what it means to be human.

Speaking of religion and science, we have a complexly beautiful and thought-provoking image toward the end of the novel of what lies at the heart (perhaps) of the world, a layered complexity that seems to knit together both science (string theory perhaps?) and religion and allow for a peaceful coexistence, a way of seeing that allows the believer to trust in science and for the scientist to be a believer. Would you go along with such a reading?

Absolutely. I love your phrase “a way of seeing that allows the believer to trust in science and for the scientist to be a believer.”

I’m a Christian. I believe that the God who made the universe became a human being in order to die in my place, and then come to life again, thus purchasing for me the ability to live forever. This will sound like fantasy to some, but it’s a fantasy I believe is true.

However, I was raised to believe that science was suspect, and that the theory of evolution was a fantasy invented by those determined to disbelieve the Word of God. I reached the point in my own thinking where I needed to investigate those claims for myself. I found that I couldn’t dismiss — and in fact, fell in love with — the beauty of the scientific process and what it had discovered. However, instead of disrupting my faith, I found that these revelations ultimately strengthened it. I see science as a study of the character and activities of the God who made the world.

The scene you refer to is not meant to be a literal model of anything in our universe, but it is symbolic of the peaceful coexistence of science and faith that I believe is possible in our real world. Quintessence Sky is a fantasy novel, and so the details of the strings, the fabric, etc. are my own invention for the sake of the story. The underlying concept, however — that the predictable, mechanistic nature of the world is consistent with a world continuously run and upheld by the God who made it — is something I actually believe.

When authors write about religion (real world religions or models clearly based on them, as opposed to wholly made up pantheons), it seems to me there is sometimes a suspicion that the author is shifting into “message” mode, maybe even proselytizing. That we react in ways we don’t usually react when the author presents us other aspects of his/her fictional world. Do you think that is true or not? Are there potential pitfalls when choosing to present a vision of god that hews more closely (or fully) with our own world’s ideas, as opposed to the safety of presenting old-style pantheons or more clearly fictional religions (when religion is even presented beyond a cursory fashion at all)?

There certainly can be that suspicion, and of course, there are authors who do try to proselytize through fiction. Let me be clear that I am not trying to evangelize in my books. I specifically do not publish through Christian publishing houses, because I think explicit religious messages generally make for bad novels. I don’t enjoy reading those novels, and I certainly wouldn’t enjoy writing them. In fact, I expect most people who read my novels won’t know what my faith is at all, though they may suspect that I am a religious person. The purpose of a novel is not to push a message, but to allow readers to experience life through the eyes of people unlike themselves, in situations they’ve never been in, and thus expand their own thoughts and experiences.

On the other hand, religion is a significant part of life. Billions of people look to religion to find meaning and purpose. For fiction to ignore religion is to miss a significant aspect of what it means to be human. I hope that people who read my books will, instead of feeling threatened by any perceived agenda on my part, be challenged to consider issues of faith and belief in ways they’ve never thought of before. I want to widen people’s thinking, not narrow it.

Have you been working on anything else beside Quintessence Sky? Can you tell about other work in hand or that we might expect in the near future? Maybe a few more details about Quintessence Crown, the third QUINTESSENCE book?

I am currently working on Quintessence Crown, which will conclude the QUINTESSENCE series. The backdrop of the novel is the struggle between the tyranny of Mary and Philip’s religious rule and the desire of the main characters to see Elizabeth come to power. Mary’s false pregnancies and early sickness and death have been transformed by quintessence to vibrant health and the birth of a son, and quintessence has provided Philip with wealth and power for his armies. It will be the final showdown between a purely religious rule, that seeks to keep its subjects ignorant and weak, and the freedom that comes from exploring and teaching truth. Oh yeah, and with some cool new monsters thrown into the mix as well.fantasy and science fiction book reviews

Any good reads lately? Or any best of the year picks you’d like to share?

I recently read Hugh Howey‘s fantastic series of WOOL, SHIFT, and DUST (interestingly enough, another self-published author). His characters are intriguing, but even more so the multi-layered nature of the underground world he’s created, with its insular cultures structured entirely on lies.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsI’ve also been hooked by Daniel Abraham‘s COIN AND DAGGER series, and I felt that The Tyrant’s Law (2013) was the best installment so far. Abraham’s fantasy is peopled with complex and highly empathetic characters, caught up in an unpredictable storyline, and I’ve found myself deeply engrossed in each of his main characters’ lives.

Thanks for the chat, David! 

Readers, comment below for a chance to win a hardback copy of Quintessence.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

    View all posts