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Quintessence by David Walton
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Quintessence

by David Walton

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Showing 5 of 5
Pros: great world-building, entertaining

Cons: surprisingly swift resolution to numerous problems

The Western Star returns to England from the edge of the world purportedly carrying treasures untold, but the hold is full of barrels of dirt, rocks, and seawater, and the crew has mysteriously died. Stephen Parris, physic to the ailing King Edward VI, attempts to increase his knowledge of the human body by dissecting corpses, an act that would mean his execution if discovered. The most recent body he examines, from The Western Star, is remarkably preserved and has some bizarre characteristics. Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist, determined to find the elixir of life, and believes the tales of wealth the admiral of The Western Star told before he died. He convinces the king to finance a second mission for the repaired ship and persuades Parris to accompany him on his voyage of discovery.

This book is set in a world very similar to our own where the Earth is, in fact, flat, and a mysterious substance called quintessence - the fifth element, the essence of life - is found in creatures that live close to the world’s edge. The book, consequently, has a lot of fantastical creatures, starting with a beetle that can fly through walls and a manticore that can speak mind to mind using its tail as a connection port. Learning about the different creatures and their miraculous properties was highly entertaining.

I’m currently learning about the history of science so it was a real pleasure to see Aristotelianism argued against atomism (not to be confused with the modern atomic theory).

The book doesn’t pull any punches with regards to what life was like, either with England in its time of tribulation (with the succession), shipboard life, or the challenges of learning about a new land. I especially appreciated that the Spanish inquisition was used accurately - as a way to wipe out heresy, not a series of witchcraft trials. Again, the horror of the institution isn’t toned down at all, and the true targets, conversos (Jews and Muslims who professed conversion to Catholicism while retaining their beliefs in secret), are briefly shown in focus. Witchcraft does come up, but in the contexts of body snatching and magic.

I really liked Parris and his inquisitiveness, as well as his daughter Catherine, and her desire to learn more about the natural world and avoid marriage for the time being. I felt that Catherine grew over the course of the book, though mostly at the end, when the consequences of her actions throughout the book become clear. Parris too grows to some extent.

Sinclair is pretty interesting as a character, though he’s not very likeable. I found his experiments cool, but his willingness to manipulate people to get his way became disturbing as the book wore on.

Most of the action in the book was predictable but there were some interesting twists, mainly concerning the creatures encountered and revolving around the ending of the book.

The ending came rather suddenly and wrapped things up a little too neatly. A number of people mastered powers too quickly to be believable. I did, however, appreciate that there was no cliffhanger leading to the next book in the trilogy. ( )
  Strider66 | Apr 14, 2015 |
What if the world really had been flat when Columbus had sailed the ocean blue? What if the America’s didn’t exist and the instead the world ended in a huge waterfall that disappeared in the distance. What if there were alchemical properties and magic might be real?

Stephen Parris is one of King Edward’s doctors, but he has a secret. He believes in the scientific principle. His search for truth, however, can get him burned as a devil worshiper, since he dissects human bodies to learn better how they work. According to the church this is a terrible desecration.

Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist who has been in search for quintessence for most of his life. A ship arrives back in port with most of the crew dead or dying carrying fantastic tales of treasure and monsters but very little proof. Sinclair considers it proof enough and works to get the ship under his control, refitted and back on the water to duplicate the journey. He is throwing the dice and gambling on nothing less than immortality itself.

Stephen and Sinclair are locked together in a fight and flight for survival, not all the problems arise from the royal soldiers. The trip is long, dangerous and fraught with terrors never before imagined, not to mention all the trials inherent to a long sea voyage.

There were a couple of the characters in the story were hard to really get behind, but there were several that were drawn well and really made the story. While Sinclair was the driving force behind the whole adventure, other than keeping the story moving he really wasn’t that important in my opinion. I really enjoyed reading this book and I thought the ideas were a lot of fun to think through. The ending felt a little mixed up with a few details kind of glossed over. But overall I recommend this book. ( )
  readafew | Apr 26, 2013 |
I received an advance copy of the book from the publisher via NetGalley.

Quintessence is a compelling book, right from the basic concept: the world is truly flat, and on that far edge of the Earth exists an island where immortality and magic are very real. The action of the book takes place against the religious turmoil of England with Queen Mary's rise to power, so many questions about philosophy and religion come into play as well.

The cast of characters is fairly diverse, beginning with Stephen Parrish, the physician whose obsession with the forbidden art of autopsy is bound to get him in trouble. His daughter Catherine has a major role, but in many ways she felt too good, too perfect. Catherine's mother Joan is probably the best in the book, a woman committed to her Catholicism to the point of fanaticism, but through the course of events realizes she has utterly lost sight of God within her faith. Then there is Sinclair, the alchemist who commands the mission to Horizon, and is determined to conquer God by commanding over death as well.

I really hoped to see more of Blanche and Maasha, as they had such incredible potential, but neither had the chance to step into the light.

For me, the world was what really hooked me within the book. I was fascinated by quintessence and its power; Walton created a unique magical system for his scientists to play with, and I loved how the rules came together. The characters--that's where I struggled. Catherine became such a major player, and as a woman I really wanted to connect with her, but I never felt her plight as a would-be woman scientist in the 16th century. Things seemed almost too easy for her, being one of few women on a ship full of men, and I don't mean that in a sexual way. Things were a bit black and white in terms of the Catholics and Protestants being bad and good guys.

Despite those nits, I enjoyed the book. On a side note, Tor also blessed Quintessence with one of the most beautiful covers I have seen in recent years. You're not supposed to judge a book by its cover, but sometimes it can't be helped. ( )
  ladycato | Mar 28, 2013 |
In Quintessence, award-winning author David Walton blends science fiction and fantasy in a manner that would make Jules Verne proud. When I saw the book cover for Quintessence, it looked like just the kind of adventure I was in the mood for and, when I read the concept from Tor Publishing, I was sold. Are you in the mood for alternate history on a flat Earth with mysterious occurrences, alchemy, strange creatures and courageous explorers? Read the rest of my review at http://popcornreads.com/?p=5661. ( )
  PopcornReads | Mar 28, 2013 |
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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.… (more)

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