Quintessence, by David Walton

I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, on behalf of the publisher. This book will be released March 19, 2013.

Well, the author tried. I have to give Walton credit for the premise. But, unfortunately, he couldn’t quite pull it off. Don’t get me wrong, this was an interesting read and highly imaginative. I enjoyed parts of it. But the characterization and dialog were not good. Not Tom Clancy bad, but bad enough to notice.

15793118Let me get the bad out of the way first, so that I can talk about the good stuff here. Quintessence is set during the brief reign of Edward VI and the beginning of Mary’s reign. But for some reason, the characters speak in modern colloquial English (one character who has been injured actually says, “I’m good”). I wasn’t expecting characters to exclaim “Zounds” or use “methinks,” but I expect at least a little semblance of period authenticity. Otherwise, why set the book during this time and place at all? Second, the villains. I love a good villain. A good villain makes for an exciting, nail-biting read. But when the villains are stock Catholic religious fanatics, I just can’t take them seriously because I know what they’re going to do. The villains’ actions, and even the actions of one of the putative protagonists, in this book defy even the most basic common sense at times. These problems were major enough that I can’t wholeheartedly say that I enjoyed this book.

Now that I have the bad parts out of the way, let me get on with it. Quintessence is set partly in 1550s England and partly in a fantastical land that hovers at the edge of the world. In Walton’s universe, Earth isn’t round. Some magic physics keep the island of Horizon from floating off the edge and endows the creatures that live there with amazing abilities. For instance, there are whale-like creatures that can float above the water and fish that can transform their bones into iron while hunting. Other inhabitants of the island can speak mind to mind. The book opens when a ship from an ill-fated voyage returns to London years after it set out. The crew and captain are either dead or dying when the ship arrives. But Christopher Sinclair, an alchemist, buys the ship and intends to set sail as soon as he can. He believes all the tales about Horizon and thinks he can find something that can bring the dead back to life. He wrangles and manipulates until he has a crew and funds and head out for Horizon. The story is mostly told from the perspective of Stephen Parris, a physician, and his daughter Catherine. Because we don’t get Sinclair’s point of view, a lot of what he does is simply irrational. At any rate, the expedition arrives in Horizon and sets up shop. Things go fairly well until the party of Spanish and English Catholics, sent after them by Queen Mary, arrive to subject the colonists and scientists to a makeshift Inquisition.

A lot of worldbuilding went into creating Horizon. The best parts of this book are when Walton describes the new animals the expedition encounters. If it hadn’t been for the weak characterization and the anachronistic dialog, I would have enjoyed this book a lot more. I realize that I might be being picky about the dialog, but one of things I really hate about historical fiction is when the author doesn’t bother to keep things accurate. I’m willing to go with authors who write alternate history (it’s one of my favorite genres), but I need a least a little verisimilitude.

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