Quintessence is a historical fantasy by David Walton, set in an alternate 1500s, a time of religious and political turmoil, exploration, and advances in natural philosophy, as old authorities were beginning to be challenged. In the last days of Edward VI’s reign, a ship returns from the edge of the world (literally — this world is flat) with news of a fantastic island, Horizon, filled with strange creatures and even better, home to what appears to be the Elixir of Life. Unfortunately, the entire crew is dead within hours of their return and their tales are thought to be ravings by all but Christopher Sinclair, an alchemist whose life’s quest is the discovery of quintessence — the element he believes will allow humanity to defeat death.
Soon, Sinclair has manipulated Stephen Parris, the king’s physician, and his daughter Catherine into joining him on an expedition to Horizon, where a colony supposedly waits. This trip, however, may be one-way only unless they can figure out what killed the crew that returned. Horizon, they find, is filled with magic and wonder, but also incredible danger. Danger has also followed them across in the ocean as well, in the form of the Inquisition.
I really enjoyed Quintessence, though I had some minor issues toward the end. It was, first of all, a nice refresher to get a historical fantasy that wasn’t narrowly set — set in a single steampunk city and set in a world lacking a broader historical context. A lot is going on in the sixteenth century and Walton makes excellent use of it: as background, as plot impetus, as character motivation, as a source of conflict. The Catholic-Protestant clash, which is also part and parcel of the political conflict (between Spain and England, within England), drives Parris to Horizon, acts as a source of conflict within Parris’ family and between larger groups and informs the scientific debates over just what the explorers have found on the island.
And yes, there are actual scientific debates — the Sixteenth Century is beginning to see the questioning of authority. Alchemy is edging into chemistry; the maps of the world are being filled in; Parris himself is, in the beginning of the book, dissecting cadavers and refuting Galen’s 1500-year-old lock on anatomy. Soon characters are debating concepts that are the first early steps toward theories of atomic structure, of evolution, of natural selection and adaptation. And just as religion informs the characters’ struggles with their natural philosophy, so their observations of natural philosophy begin to inform their religious faith.
This sense of new worlds opening up, of humanity on the cusp of grand new ideas and discoveries permeates the book and affects all the characters — some reveling in these changes, some fearing them, and many doing both. The way they, and the reader, wrestle with big ideas, including life and death and possible power over both, is one of the most compelling aspects of Quintessence.
Another “big idea” is the colonization itself. Horizon has its own indigenous, intelligent population (separated into families or tribes that have their own issues with each other) and just as with the European arrival into the New World, the natives’ lives are wholly disrupted by the strangers who come seeking riches and immortality, two objectives that in most European minds take great precedence over the welfare of the local “savages.” If the plotting around this is sometimes a little too much on the nose, it still adds a nice level of depth and complexity to the main storyline.
Characterization in general is another strong point. Parris, his wife, and Sinclair are all complex characters, torn amongst competing desires and fears and all three develop as the story progresses. One way Walton deepens them is through past loss. Here, for example, is Sinclair after one of his experiments has left him face to face with what appears to be a mini black hole:
He fell to the boards, his heart hammering, the vision of that bottomless void still fixed in his mind… Ever since, as a child, he’d watched his father die, he’d understood that his soul — that spark of being and personality that was uniquely Christopher Sinclair — was destined, at his death, for the void. Now he had actually seen it — nonexistence made visible — and it rattled him.
Meanwhile, Parris and his wife carry the heavy emotional burden of their son’s recent death throughout the novel; Sinclair’s friend and partner, a Muslim prince, perpetually grieves for his murdered daughters; and Catherine’s personal maid, a Spanish Jew, carries with her the ghosts of her family killed by the Inquisition.
Several of the side characters, especially a Bishop and two close friends always on opposite ends of philosophical debates, are also richly drawn. Parris’ daughter is less complex — mostly playing the intelligently plucky doesn’t-want-to-be-stifled young woman — and the Spaniard de Tavera is a pretty one-note Inquisition guy, though to be fair, Grand Inquisitors (the real-life de Tavera was one in fact) aren’t known for their nuance.
If setting, theme, and character are the strong points of Quintessence, its plot and prose style stand somewhat in contrast, though both are more than serviceable. The plot starts out strong in England, the sea voyage is tense, and the introduction to Horizon is filled with delightful creations. One can imagine Walton having a ball coming up with strange creatures, both plant and animal, and then spinning from those creatures that would have adapted to prey on or be safe from those creatures. Once the de Tavera arrives though, while things remain tense (in fact, the tension spikes greatly) it starts to feel a little rushed. I don’t say this often, but I wouldn’t have minded Walton giving himself another 50 pages or so to slow down in the last fifth or so of the novel.
Meanwhile, the prose does its job. The writing is tight throughout and the dialogue is mostly well done with only a few times where it feels a bit flat or familiar, as in scenes involving Catherine and the Bishop’s son. I would have liked to see it reach a bit more to better match the wonders of the island, but really, there is little to complain about with either style or plotting, or with the book as a whole. Quintessence ends in a way that resolves things but also leaves room for a sequel. I, for one, hope Walton keeps going.