Quintessence by David Walton
Review by AE Marling, author of Brood of Bones (Book of the Month, August 2012)
If you feel that your fantasy novels have been cruelly deficient in science, then Quintessence is the book for you.
Turn back the clock to the time of the Spanish Inquisition. Lady Jane Grey has been deposed, and the Catholic Church has regained control of England. Protestants flee for their lives, but there are no Americas to escape to. In this flat world, Columbus and his three ships fell off the end of the ocean.
Parris, physic to the dead king, finds himself doubly imperilled. He is Protestant and in the habit of dissecting corpses - For Science! - a practice that the inquisitors may find a tinsy bit suspicious. Parris wants to take his family to safety. His wife wants him to renounce his faith, and his brilliant daughter, Catherine wants to help her father conduct experiments.
Only one ship can take the Protestants away. The craft is owned by Alchemist Sinclair, who is embarking to an island at the edge of the world. A place with rivers of diamonds and hills of gold, or so Sinclair tells the sailors. The alchemist himself is pursuing a greater treasure: quintessence. The secret to everlasting life.
Sinclair conscripts Parris and his daughter for the expedition. They leave moments before the inquisitors arrive with their muskets, informed of the departure by Parris’s wife. Instead of a compass, the alchemist charts a course across the ocean with a direction-sensing beetle. Their voyage is a feast of peril. They encounter a sea-serpent, barracuda that can turn themselves to iron, ethereal manticores, and a floating whale before they even reach the island.
Once there, they find ecosystems charged with magic, with each creature evolved with its own power. From exploding fire frogs to tortoises that turn sand to food, from eels with a Midas touch as a defence mechanism to cats that resurrect each other as part of a mating ritual, the new land abounds with wonder. The colonists have to survive where the natives can walk through walls, turn invisible, and use telepathy to plan their attacks. Without any spells of their own, the humans have but one resource: their ingenuity.
The settlers have their battles, but the true struggles take place in their discussions of philosophy and the science of magic. Parris and his daughter seek out inventions to benefit the colony through methodical experimentation. The Alchemist Sinclair hoards his knowledge and cares for nothing but distilling quintessence.
To Sinclair, any sacrifice is justified to discover the fountain of youth. He would even doom every person of the colony. He may already have. What he did not tell them was that the last expedition to try to return from the island to Europe suffered a terrible fate. Withdrawal from the magical land petrified them, their organs solidifying one by one.
Understanding magic scientifically is at the glowing heart of this book. I loved it, though I can understand the lengthy debates might not entertain everyone. The heroes of this story win not with might but mind, and I delighted to see Catherine come to be accepted as a contributor of magical knowledge.
Author David Walton flexed his creative muscle coming up with the island’s mystical bestiary. I believed in the full diversity of jungle ecology highlighted with magic, and seeing the colonists interact with the wildlife to innovate was as exhilarating as scooting down a water slide flowing with the elixir of youth.
This book commanded my attention with sympathetic characters and strong world-building. Disappointments struck me when I realized how large a role the inquisitors would play as antagonists. Call me greedy, but I had wanted more brawls with sea monsters and the island locals. Or, better yet, to see the colonists make peace with them.
One Protestant priest does make an impressive effort to convert the indigenous sentient creatures. He is a strong character who argues that god loves Sinclair, even though the alchemist sees himself as defying the deity and trying to steal his power. Theology is just one more facet to the intellectual debate coursing through this book. It helped that most of the discussion was relevant to the success of the main characters.
With such a structured magic system, staying consistent is like tightrope-walking on a bungee cord. I was incredulous of some of the final solutions David Walton presented, but at least the ending was dramatic, not only with magic and strife but also in character growth.
Now, if you will excuse me, I think I just saw a beetle pass through a wall unharmed. I plan to follow it, just in case it leads me past the horizon to a land of everlasting magic.
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