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Friday, March 29, 2013

"Quintessence" by David Walton (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu and Casey Blair)


"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."

LIVIU’S ANALYSIS: Quintessence is an oddly engaging novel which kept me turning the pages despite being in many ways standard action-sff with cliched villains that have been common in English language genre for a long time, namely inquisition Spaniard who burns heretics at breakfast, lunch and dinner and English treacherous helper who licks the Spaniard boots and informs left and right for advancement, compressed-time action where a main character spends his life seeking stuff, only to find it in a jiff so to speak, hair-rising dangers which you know the heroes will overcome etc etc.

But there is narrative energy and there is sense of wonder galore, not to speak of a superbly consistent alt-physics based on the quintessence of the title; strange creatures, strange people - just to start there is a beetle that passes through almost any material but not wax and always moves west - and inventiveness galore and for that I highly recommend the novel despite the lack of subtlety in all its characters, heroes and villains alike. 

While billed as fantasy - and technically being an alt-history fantasy at the end of the reign of boy king Edward VI and the beginning of the reign of Bloody Mary - the novel is very sfnal in its qualities and work best as such. The ending is good as it closes well the novel's storyline with a promise for more.

Here is a quote with the investigation of Dr Parris and alchemist Sinclair about the beetle, where Parris - personal physician of dying king Edward, and natural scientist who dissects cadavers at night, Sinclair, adventurer and alchemist looking for immortality and Catherine, Parris' 16 year old daughter who wants to "lead a man's life and decide things for herself" are the main characters though there quite a few important others:

"1. The beetle could walk through every material they tested except for wax and earth.
2. The table was not special. Once Parris scraped away the waxy resin that had been used to treat the tabletop, the beetle fell straight through it to be caught in the box he held underneath.
3. The pale wood of the beetle’s box had not been treated, but the inside was covered with a natural waxy oil that imprisoned the beetle just as effectively.
4. The beetle could pass into the box, but not out of it— which didn’t make any sense at all, but made an effective trap. Sinclair could slam the closed box down on top of the beetle, or slide the box along the table into it, forcing it to pass through into a prison from which it could not escape. Sinclair tried it several times, apparently pleased with the theatricality."

CASEY’S ANALYSIS: Quintessence really came together in the pages leading up to the climax, but until that point there were some inconsistencies that bothered me. More than one character who believes something very strongly then inexplicably acts in a way that goes completely against that belief; humans do, of course, do this from time to time, but it seemed accidental when it happened in the book. The POV characters kept behaving in ways that didn't make sense given what we knew of them, and it drove me a little batty. There were some straw man arguments that annoyed me, too, for much the same reason: they served the plot but didn't make sense given the character. I think the climax worked so well because by then, characters' risky decisions no longer seemed arbitrary: their individual stakes were driving them to life and death decisions.

I did appreciate how the author treated both science and religion: each had proponents with different opinions, and neither was portrayed as inherently more worthwhile than the other, nor necessarily mutually exclusive. I was surprised to see a noble lady knitting, but since David Walton nailed so many other historical realities (scurvy, medicine, alchemy, etc.), I was willing to believe it. In fact, he really nailed the spirit and mechanics of the profession for both alchemists and physicians of Renaissance England. Overall, I think David Walton created a fascinating world with some incredibly nuanced issues, and I would read Quintessence again for that alone.


Camilla P. said...

Well, the plot has a certain appeal, indeed - and the review is very well written.

I think I'll give it a look :)

Liviu said...

Thank you for the comment! Hope you enjoy the book.

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