Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) 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.
Thoughts: Normally historical fantasy isn’t really my thing, but after reading Quintessence, I’m starting to think that it should be. Set initially in 16th century London, a time of religious and political turmoil, the book primarily follows the story of Dr. Parris, his daughter Catherine, and an alchemist with ambition named Sinclair. After a failed voyage to magical lands, something has followed the now-dead sailors back, throwing Parris and Catherine in with Sinclair as the family is exhiled and Sinclair launches his own voyage to the strange and wondrous lands across the ocean.
The voyage is far from an easy one, as the crew faces not only the typical dangers of the ocean but also, as they get closer to the magical land, the perils of sea monsters, fish that turn into iron, and the strange substance that ties them all together: quintessence, the stuff that God used to make the universe. And when they get there, they encounter the native inhabitants of the islands, whom they call the tamarins, as well as the strange flora and fauna that cannot survive when taken too far from the edge of the world.
And it really is the edge of the world. Beyond the island is a great waterfall into nothingness. It’s another elements that adds a sense of wonder to the story, a literal interpretation of what some believed in the past, and it fits in so well with the story that you don’t think to question it. It is. That’s all you need.
This novel, at its heart, is a story of exploration and discovery. Not just the discovery of new lands across the ocean, but of the experiments to explain magic and the impossible at a scientific level. The debate over whether or not matter is composed of tiny little things called atoms. How the bodies of humans and animals work on the inside. Catholicism or Protestantism, or whether it really matters at all. And the answer to what some consider the biggest question of all: what lies beyond death, and can people be brought back from it?
There are no heroes in this tale. Characters are stupid, arrogant, sometimes downright cruel and viscious, and while you can seperate groups into general “good guys” and “bad guys,” there’s definitely some overlap, and the divisions aren’t as clear-cut as they first appear. Good people do bad things, bad people do good things, everyone does things that make the reader facepalm now and again, and that’s what make these characters come across as real, not just lessons in a morality play. Modern sensitibilities are, happily, quite lacking in this story, which adds another sense of believability to the tale. Comparatively, I’ve found that many historical novels, especially historical fantasy, essentially transplant a modern person into old times, labeling them as morally and socially progressive for their period, which I suppose is designed to help the reader relate to a time and place in which they are generally unfamiliar. There may be a bit of progressive thinking here, but that comes from characters who are already known for it, such as Parris (trying to understand physiology through dissection) and Catherine (not really keen on being a good young woman and settling down to marry when there are adventures to be had).
This was my introduction to Walton’s writing, and I must say, if this is an example of what’s to come, then you can be assured that I’ll be checking out his other books. His style is smooth, his pacing a little rocky at times but I find that was made up for by the quality of detail and the interest generated for the characters and their setting. Walton has a wonderful streak of imagination and wonder that’s balanced by a healthy streak of historically-appropriate science, and that combination made for a winning story that I won’t soon forget. If you’re a fan of historical fantasy, or a fan of tales of massive discovery and speculation, then this is a book you won’t want to pass on reading.
(Received for review from the publisher via NetGalley.)