Some books try to create a cleverly envisioned world that replaces the world we know with a something that is different from everything we know. History, geography and sometimes even physics are totally alien things. Some books replace only the tiniest possible things and painstakingly work to make everything else the same, so that we are struck by the ways the story is like coming home – except not. It’s the rare book that shoots for something in the middle. Quintessence is one of those books.
David Walton gives us the Europe that we know and love, with a history that is mostly the same, with one major caveat: The Earth is flat.
It’s been scientifically proven and everything.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Age of Exploration is playing out a little differently there than it did here. But it is playing out, regardless. Explorers have discovered a land literally on the edge of the earth full of gold, gems, new plants and animals and a host of other wonders. The problem is, all the explorers who came back slowly sickened and died, most before they could even make it back to England.
Meanwhile, Europe is embroiled in the usual political, social and religious controversies that have defined that continent pretty much ever since the Romans decided it might be fun to conquer it (and perhaps even before.) Before our story is over, mad alchemists, royal surgeons, gentlemen scholars and Protestant leaders will all be involved in exploring the new land and the strange nature of quintessence, the alchemical substance that suffuses it. Also, the Spanish Inquisition makes an appearance (bet you weren’t expecting that.)
Quintessence has a strange charm to it. Most of the characters are ideologues, but perhaps that’s not surprising given the time they come from. A person had to be highly motivated in order to undertake the kind of exploratory journey that is at the heart of the tale, and even today it’s usually idealism that motivates that kind of behavior. And, of course, I have no problem with fiction that’s suffused with ideas.
What’s better is, most of the ideas are given fair hearing. Even Catholicism, which is something of the villain of the book, has sympathetic voices as well. On top of that, the characters are believable in their pursuit of their ideals, not simply cardboard cutouts that spew speeches. They struggle with their motives and make surprising choices from time to time.
At it’s core, Quintessence is a fun adventure story that delivers exactly what you want, strange sights and exciting times, but leaves you with a little extra to chew on and the promise of second helpings to come.