Quintessence review

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Quintessence is the first foray into alternate history/fantasy for the 2008 winner of the Philip K. Dick Award for best paperback science fiction novel of the year, David Walton. The book is a stand-alone and was released in March 2013.
Imagine an Age of Exploration full of alchemy, human dissection, sea monsters, betrayal, torture, religious controversy, and magic. In Europe, the magic is thin, but at the edge of the world, where the stars reach down close to the Earth, wonders abound. This drives the bravest explorers to the alluring Western Ocean. Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist who cares only about one thing: quintessence, a substance he believes will grant magical powers and immortality. And he has a ship.
I have never been a big fan of alternate history fantasy but I keep an open mind and through the years, I found some interesting titles.  When I picked up Quintessence, I was intrigued by the principle creating the basis for the setting of the book. What if the world was indeed flat and that the alchemical theories of the early renaissance were mostly true in accordance with the theory of atomism? What if quintessence, the fifth fundamental force, was a reality waiting to be discovered right at the edge of the world?

Obviously, and I'm confident that I'm not alone, that premise sound quite promising.  What this world needs to achieve an even higher level of compelling sweetness is a good story and colorful characters to back it up. In that aspect, Quintessence has its ups and downs.  The novel is a fast read, one that will quench your thirst for a science filled era of discovery and adventure but won't leave a perfect impression in its wake.

Populating the pages of the book are three main characters. Parris is the English King's physician (right before Edward VI passed away and was followed by Mary).  He loves science and medicine and wants to explore the human anatomy in ways that are far from proper in the day and age he lives in. In his past lies the death of his son, fueling his need to find ways to cheat disease and even death. It's difficult for a man with such modern views of the world to live in a religiously broiling country. That battle between religion and science is often found in the inconsistent exchanges between the various cast members and serve as an anchor to keep the book from diving completely into science fiction.

His daughter, Catherine, who ought to be looking for a suitor is also avid of new discoveries. She's a bright young adventurous woman who's also living in the wrong time. Finally, there's Sinclair. He's a cunning man who traveled the world to discover the secret of ages, immortality. His experience and his sense of opportunity will lead him to embark on a perilous voyage at sea with, among many others, the Doctor and his unconscious girl. The sailing time between the rising of action in England and the new world they will discover felt like a wave (if you pardon me the pun).  Ups and downs, form slightly boring conversation to life threatening surprises and from novelty in quintessential supernatural to the expected mutiny slowly building up.

As I said, the weird ideas made possible by quintessence are usually brilliant. However, whenever a new mystery is unveiled, it seems that the open minded scientists always find the answers quite easily, or maybe too fast. They are intelligent people but their cleverness borders the too convenient for the time period.

When they reach new shores, they encounter strange beings serving as the native for the story, in need of  evangelism from the point of view of the white men.  They will act as both the villains and the allies while the biggest nemesis of science at the time, the inquisition will find its way to the foolhardy protagonists to create a troublesome situation in the new colony full of wonders and riches. The beings I mention, the manticores, are interesting but lack some outlook.

From there, the story is pretty straightforward but present some action and eventful turns of events. It's an entertaining read with some scenes where I couldn't stop turning the pages but as a whole and for the climax, the tale is mostly predictable.  That's also the case with the main protagonists, even if they don't seem to  remain continuously in character. Sinclair is the exception, with his unconditional dedication, he remained an engaging hero for the entire adventure.

Walton's writing is made from a flowing prose without many frills. A lot of ground is covered but the focus is on the important moments of the tale.  As I read the book, I felt that it could easily be translated to a movie. The novel isn't as simple as a movie script but clearly, whether it's intended or not, the structure of the narrative is the stuff of an adventure feature film.

In the end, Quintessence could be summed up as an engaging adventure novel mixed up with a nice background idea creating mysteries worth discovering.  A linear plot with decent ambition, combining flawed and gripping characters in an enjoyable but typical read.

Technically, I love the beautiful cover art by Kekai Kotaki depicting a scene from the book (Tor edition). No maps are included but who would want a map of the real world anyway? The hardcover edition of the books stand at 320 pages.

Quintessence review rating :

World building
Magic system 

Overall (not an average)


Anonymous said...

I recently read this one and really enjoyed it. Particularly I liked just how fallible the characters were; there was no case of "We're right and they're wrong," unless it was to illustrate how oops, you're not so right after all. Definitely made me want to read more of Walton's writing!

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