BRIEF SYNOPSIS: On a Flat Earth, an alchemist’s desire for a magical substance draws an expedition to the edge of the world into conflict with dangers mundane and magical alike.
PROS: An interesting high concept and some interesting worldbuilding ideas; fast paced; good use of proto-scientific method for magical researched. Beautiful cover art.
CONS: Stock, often uninteresting and unsympathetic characters; contrivances of plot are precisely that, contrivances.
BOTTOM LINE: A novel whose high concept and ideas do not quite live up to their execution.
The Earth is Flat. Everyone knows this. An expedition to the edge of the world, to see the riches there, both magical and mundane, has come back to England with a ship of corpses and chests full of sand. A young alchemist, however, is convinced the secret to the ultimate alchemical element is waiting there for the taking. And he is willing to manipulate, lie and scheme to get another expedition to sail west to seek…Quintessence.
Quintessence is a fantasy novel from Philip K. Dick Award winning author David Walton. The high concept of Quintessence is interesting: the world, our world, is really flat, and alchemy is a real proto-science, just like any other in the 16th century. Sailing over the edge of the world, or just into a realm of Here There Be Monsters would sound like a box office sort of high concept, especially with a firmly genre focus rather than just being an age of discovery sort of novel. The cover art, from Kekai Kotaki, does invite the reader to imagine this wondrous age of exploration within the pages of the book, and the cover art should be signaled out and praised for being effective in doing so.
The proto-scientific method as seen in the novel is also a strength of the novel, as the main characters try to probe the secret of the strange items and aspects of the edge of the world in a logical, and rigorous sense of discovery. Even though this sometimes slowed the forward momentum of the novel, the novel resonates well and is often on its strongest ground when we get these scenes. It does help set the novel as it does, as new science and new discoveries, often at cost or with forbidden resources, are the name of the game.
I was unhappy with many aspects of the novel, however. Many of the characters we meet are seemingly from stock central casting and have little nuance in characterization or depth. Worse, the writing itself and the point of views chosen did not, for me, invite engagement with the characters or identify with them effectively. With the sole exception of the alchemist, Christopher Sinclair, many of them felt little more than chess pawns, being pushed across the board. Even the King’s Physician, Stephen Parris, and his daughter Catherine feel like they are pushed around rather than being entirely autonomous. A couple of more characters try to rise, but time and again, just feel like they are reciting lines and performing actions without any real enthusiasm or verve.
The characterization problems I felt are especially egregious when the antagonists of the novel show up on the stage. Said antagonists feel little more than a threat or a problem to the colonists. They never, ever come across as characters with hopes, fears and dreams of their own. They present a real threat and challenge, but they don’t seem to have a point of view of their own with any depth whatsoever.
Too, the plot contrivances were wearisome after a while. From Parris and his daughter getting onto the expedition, to a couple of manufactured crises on the journey and at the destination, and as mentioned above, the arrival of the antagonists on the scene and their ham-fisted actions. Again and again, these things seemed to happen without any organic development, and seem to occur solely so the author could push the plot in a particular direction. It felt like, after a while, that the author was writing to a predetermined conclusion, and the bridges to get there are extremely shaky.
I wish I could have liked Quintessence more than I did. Readers who might wish to overlook the flaws I found might be entertained or intrigued by the worldbuilding and universe might find Quintessence more to their liking.