Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist who cares about only one thing: discovering the quintessence, the mystical fifth element that may be able to transmute base metals into gold and even bring the dead back to life. Stephen Parris, a physic in the court of England’s sickly Edward VI, strives in his own controversial way to extend life by practicing the forbidden art of human dissection to further his medical knowledge. Neither man is willing to accept the strictures imposed on their research by religion: they are guided by scientific principles and rational discourse, not the limits of revealed knowledge.
This puts them in direct conflict with the religious powers of the day, at a time when the Counter-Reformation is on the verge of sweeping over England and making life for heretics of various persuasions extremely unpleasant. Parris and Sinclair strike out for Horizon, an island on the edge of the world where the Inquisition won’t be able to reach them and, more importantly, where they may discover more about the quintessence….
David Walton’s Quintessence combines elements of alternate history and fantasy in a fast-paced adventure full of intriguing ideas and bizarre magical creatures. Despite a few noticeable flaws, this is an enjoyable novel. Whether it’s a worthy follow-up to Walton’s Philip K. Dick Award-winning debut Terminal Mind will probably depend on your personal taste (it’s very different) and on your level of tolerance for the aforementioned flaws.
To be fair, it’s possible that I’m giving this novel the benefit of the doubt because I’ll read almost anything set in mid-16th century England—or, in this case, a dramatically different but still recognizable fantasy version of that period. The religious controversies of the time and the contested succession of the short-lived Edward VI are kept intact and play an important role in the events portrayed in Quintessence.
It’s the structure of the universe that’s very different: the world is flat, for one, rather than round. The heavens are a bowl encompassing this flat Earth. The sun is created anew each day in the East and dissolves in the ocean to the West. It’s as if Ptolemaeus and Copernicus reversed roles. As you get further out to the edge of the world, magic gets stronger and stronger. Even though no one has made it back alive, it’s believed that untold riches and wonders await explorers there.
Quintessence is a nicely compact novel with three distinct phases. The opening part is set in England and introduces the world and the major players: Sinclair, Parris and family, and a few supporting characters. The middle section is set at sea, during the long voyage to Horizon, and the final third takes place after the expedition reaches the magical New World. (I don’t doubt that some authors would have turned each of these into a separate novel, by the way. It’s a pleasant surprise to read a book that covers so much ground in just over 300 pages.)
The characters are a bit of a mixed bag. Sinclair the alchemist is the most fascinating one, a ruthless and somewhat maniacal genius who will sacrifice everyone and everything to conquer death. His personality and sheer unpredictability make his sections of the novel by far the most interesting ones. Parris is much more placid and less captivating, partly because of his personality, and partly because his motivation (the recent death of his young son) feels somewhat tacked on.
From the start, Parris’ daughter Catherine is clearly being set up as a mold-breaker for the period’s brand of sexism: “If she had been a boy, he could have included her in his work, taught her a physic’s profession. But because she was a girl, the best thing he could do was keep her safe.” Unfortunately, Catherine’s evolution is all too recognizable. What’s worse, she feels like a Smurfette for most of the novel. (This is somewhat painfully highlighted when the young man who is obviously set up to be her love interest mentions something to the effect of “there aren’t exactly many other women around here.”)
Most other characters don’t have much depth. Sinclair’s partner Maasha Kaatra (“the darkest African Parris had ever seen”) and Catherine’s maidservant Blanche have background stories straight out of a B-movie. Vaughan and Tavera, the two villains in the story, are much too stereotypical to be convincing. For all its original ideas, some of this novel’s characters feel much too recognizable.
Thank goodness Quintessence is a fast-paced novel. Even the many sidebars explaining alchemical or scientific ideas (occasionally in the form of lecture-dialogues) aren’t enough to slow down this briskly moving adventure. Unfortunately, there are several iffy plot devices and twists along the way: people keeping major developments secret from others for no good reason, people easily able to sneak by guards when necessary, then escaping through inexplicably unguarded side doors. Even the entire reasoning for who’s going on the expedition and how it’s financed is a huge stretch. It frequently feels as if characters are mainly doing what they do because the author needs to advance the story in a certain direction.
While some of Quintessence’s plot pushes the boundaries of believability, this is a bit easier to forgive because of the sheer amount of interesting ideas it offers. By this I don’t mean just the neat magic items and creatures that abound later on (although some of those are very cool) but also the exploration of how alchemy can affect the world as we know it. In a time when the scientific method wasn’t exactly common practice yet, the characters of this novel are empirically trying to work out the underlying rules of the seemingly limitless magic discoveries they make on the island.
The juxtaposition of the rationalism of medical science, the mystery of alchemy, and the two competing strands of Christianity may be the most interesting aspect of this novel. Even better: most of this isn’t presented in a stark black and white, “enlightenment vs. religion” way. Everyone judges everyone else unfairly. The main characters, who are mostly trying to get away from religious rule for a variety of reasons, are sometimes as ruthless as their adversaries. The representative of the Spanish Inquisition may have no redeeming qualities, but other religious characters show a more open-minded attitude towards the wonders they discover.
This melding of spirituality and scientific discovery is a theme that appears time and again throughout the novel:
After the liquid boiled into vapor, it would condense in the tube and then drip into a trough as a liquid again. Through this process, it would leave its impurities behind in the flask and reappear again purer than before.
Distillation was the heart of what he loved about alchemy: this slow, silent ritual, ripe with philosophical musings, in which a gross material vanished into its spiritual form and returned again, better than before. This was true religion. The subtle spirit liberated from gross matter.
Some characters in Quintessence feel that “the study of science is the study of God’s character, creativity and purpose,” as the author wrote last year in an interesting blog post titled “How can a Christian write science fiction?” The reasons for their urge to discover the secrets of the universe vary from hubris to guilt to genuine, basic curiosity, but all of them lead to the interplay between science, magic and religion that makes Quintessence an interesting novel, despite its flaws.