Quintessence Sky is the follow-up to David Walton’s historical fantasy Quintessence, one of last year’s more interesting reads for me which garnered a four and a half star recommendation, thanks to its rich characterization and smart discussions or representations of big ideas: clash of religions and cultures, imperialism/colonialism, the conflict of science and religion.
Unfortunately, despite all its good qualities, Quintessence couldn’t find enough of an audience (we do what we can here) to keep Tor on board as publisher, and so Walton chose to go the self-published route. While I find that utterly depressing that such a smartly written novel couldn’t find a market, the silver lining is that the sequel is out sooner than it otherwise would have been. While Quintessence Sky doesn’t quite match the standard of its predecessor, it’s nonetheless a solid read and one that seemingly sets us on the path toward a pretty action-filled third book, if I’m reading the tea leaves right.
Picking up not too long after the close of the first novel, Quintessence Sky sets us back down in 16th Century Europe, at first in Spain where we meet the Jesuit priest Ramos de Tavera and his niece Antonia, and then quickly over to England, where de Tavera becomes embroiled in court politics. Specifically, in the tension between then King of England (and a lot of other countries) Philip II of Spain, married to Queen Mary, and Mary’s half-sister Princess Elizabeth. It is a time of roiling political and religious tension, with the country split between Catholics (Philip and Mary’s religion) and Protestants (Elizabeth’s professed religion, though there is some debate over the strength of that faith). Philip, ruthless and demanding, has ordered de Tavera to help his advisors, including the alchemist John Dee, plumb the secrets of a single ship’s cargo of mysterious objects recovered from the island of Horizon, off at the edge of the flat world. Philip, who has sent another group of ships to take control of the island, hopes to unlock the secret of Horizon’s source of power — quintessence — which would give him the power to spread Catholicism (and his rule) over the world.
Meanwhile, over on Horizon, the colony established in book one is in dire straits. Civil war is brewing among the indigenous manticores, with a growing contingent of them desiring to wipe out the Europeans. Of more immediate concern, however, is an accelerating weakening of quintessence, upon which the colonists depend for their lives, let alone the special powers it grants them. If Matthew and Catherine cannot suss out the cause of quintessence’s collapse, all the colonists will be dead well before any potential attack by the manticores. Or by the Spanish soldiers now sailing toward them.
As mentioned, I didn’t find Quintessence Sky to be as engaging as book one. There were several reasons for this. One was that while Horizon and its unique inhabitants was center stage for much of Quintessence, here it acted more as background, and so we were introduced to fewer wondrously strange creatures. I understand why that might be so; after all, we’ve already been introduced to the island and its biosphere. But I felt the loss of that sense of the strange. Another reason was there were fewer of those smart conversations the first book was full of. We meet lots of smart people; they just don’t get to express those questing minds as much.
An exception to that is de Tavera, who makes for an excellent focal point. Inquisitive, passionate, fiercely protective of those he cares for, he’d make for a likable character for those qualities alone. But by placing him in the path of both an opposition faith (Elizabeth and her Protestantism) and bringing him face to face with evidence that all that the Church teaches cannot encompass, he becomes a smart man conflicted within himself, and that makes him the most compelling character in the novel.
Other characters don’t fare quite so well. Dee is intriguing, but we don’t see all that much of him. Philip is your typical ruthlessly ambitious ruler who cares little for those he rules. Elizabeth is engagingly intelligent, quick-witted, and perceptive, but she plays a little too good too often, with her “majesty” also smoothing the ground for her a bit too easily. To be fair, I should point out that while I was bothered by this at times, I also realized that in this time period, with these people, “majesty” would indeed have this sort of effect, so this is probably more my own problem than Walton’s.
On the island, none of the characters really stood out as particularly interesting for me. Part of this was because their situations didn’t allow for a lot of reflection or thoughtful interaction; they’re mostly trying to stay alive. But they still felt a little flat, and a few convenient plot occurrences and what seemed to me one or two suspensions of disbelief where I had a hard time suspending didn’t help that storyline. I found the European plot far stronger and much more tense. When the two storylines come together (you knew they would), action really kicks into high gear, again leaving little time for philosophizing or interaction. But some of the more interesting fantastic elements also come into play there, as do more of the island’s secrets that lend themselves to some deep thinking, leading to a more-than-effective, and at times, moving ending. And one that, as stated above, seems to set us up for a much wider stage of action, as the colonists, with the power of quintessence and now allied with Elizabeth, head back to England, where Catholic Philip and Mary still rule.
Quintessence Sky wasn’t a huge step backwards, but it does perhaps smack a bit too much of the bridge book syndrome, moving us forward to the point we need to arrive at, setting our characters in the places they need to be, but dipping a bit in terms of being a compelling read. If Walton can expand the stage and intensify the action all while regaining that balance between action and reflection that made Quintessence such a good read, well, I’d be very excited to read that book (are you listening publishers?).