Jump to ratings and reviews
Rate this book

Quintessence #1


Rate this book
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.

320 pages, Hardcover

First published March 19, 2013

Loading interface...
Loading interface...

About the author

David Walton

11 books242 followers
David loves to read science fiction and lives near Philadelphia with his wife and eight children. His latest book, THREE LAWS LETHAL, is about self-driving cars and the AIs that drive them.

"Three Laws Lethal gives the reader exciting insights into the threats and the promises that are coming our way."
—Vernor Vinge

"Walton has brought hard sci-fi roaring back to life."
—The Wall Street Journal

“One of my favorite science fiction writers, Walton consistently delivers exciting thrillers packed with likeable characters and big ideas.”
—Craig DiLouie

Ratings & Reviews

What do you think?
Rate this book

Friends & Following

Create a free account to discover what your friends think of this book!

Community Reviews

5 stars
112 (16%)
4 stars
235 (35%)
3 stars
224 (33%)
2 stars
75 (11%)
1 star
21 (3%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 142 reviews
Profile Image for Dan Schwent.
2,920 reviews10.6k followers
August 12, 2013
In a world where the Earth is flat and alchemy works, Alchemist Chistopher Sinclair and physician Stephen Parris leave their uncertain futures in England and flee to Horizon, a colony on the edge of the world. But even as they unravel the island's many wonders, can they truly escape the religious upheavals in England?

The Quintessance is part alternate history and part what I'm now calling alternate science. It takes place during the Age of Exploration, only in this world, the Earth is flat and the world is ruled by alchemical principles, and alchemist search for the Quintessence, the mysterious fifth element. It reminded me of Celestial Matters, another alternate history/alternate science tale.

The two leads, Sinclair and Parris, contrast each other nicely. Parris is a rational-thinking family man and Sinclair is a driven alchemist seeking to beat death. Parris's relationship with his family does a lot to flesh out his character. The wonders of the quintessence got me interested in the story before the gang ever left England, especially Catherine and the manticore.

Once they drew closer to Horizon and began encountering all sorts of magical creatures, the story took off to me, only to bog down once they reached the colony. While the experiments with the quintessence were interesting, not a lot happened until the mysterious earthquake and the bad guys showed up.

The bad guys were a bit of a problem. Parris' cousin Vaughan was almost unbelievable he was such a selfish douche and Tavera, late of the Spanish Inquisition (NO ONE EXPECTS THE SPANISH INQUISITION!), was practically twirling his mustache in villainous delight, although I actually found him the more believable of the pair. The best villains are the ones that think their actions are justified and Tavera certainly had that going for him. If the story had gone another way, I could easily see Sinclair playing the villainous role.

That's about all I have to say. Quintessence was an enjoyable read but I'm not wetting myself in anticipation for the sequel. 3.5 out of 5.
Profile Image for Liviu.
2,251 reviews630 followers
July 23, 2014
Quintessence is an oddly engaging novel which kept me turning the pages despite being in a way standard action-sff with ultimate cliched villains (inquisition Spaniard who burns heretics at breakfast, lunch and dinner and English treacherous helper who licks the Spaniard boots and informs left and right for advancement), compressed-time action (main character spends his life seeking stuff, only to find it in a jiff so to speak...), hair-rising dangers which you know the heroes will overcome etc etc.

But there is narrative energy and there is sense of wonder galore, not to speak of a superbly consistent alt-physics based on the quintessence of the title; strange creatures, strange people - just to start there is a beetle that passes through almost any material but not wax and moves always west - and inventiveness galore and for that I highly recommend the novel despite the lack of much subtlety in its characters; while billed as fantasy - and technically being an alt-history fantasy at the end of the reign of boy king Edward VI and beginning of the reign of Bloody Mary - the novel is very sfnal in its qualities and work best as such

The ending is good as it closes well the novel's storyline with a promise for more

Here is a quote with the investigation of Dr Parris and alchemist Sinclair about the beetle (Parris - personal physician of dying king Edward, and natural scientist who dissects cadavers at night, Sinclair adventurer and alchemist looking for immortality and Catherine, Parris' 16 year old daughter who wants to "lead a man's life and decide things for herself" are the main characters though there quite a few important others)

"1. The beetle could walk through every material they tested except for wax and earth.
2. The table was not special. Once Parris scraped away the waxy resin that had been used to treat the tabletop, the beetle fell straight through it to be caught in the box he held underneath.
3. The pale wood of the beetle’s box had not been treated, but the inside was covered with a natural waxy oil that imprisoned the beetle just as effectively.
4. The beetle could pass into the box, but not out of it— which didn’t make any sense at all, but made an effective trap. Sinclair could slam the closed box down on top of the beetle, or slide the box along the table into it, forcing it to pass through into a prison from which it could not escape. Sinclair tried it several times, apparently pleased with the theatricality."

link to FBC review with Casey Blair - my part is pretty much the above but edited better

Profile Image for Stefan.
405 reviews164 followers
March 20, 2013
Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist who cares about only one thing: discovering the quintessence, the mystical fifth element that may be able to transmute base metals into gold and even bring the dead back to life. Stephen Parris, a physic in the court of England’s sickly Edward VI, strives in his own controversial way to extend life by practicing the forbidden art of human dissection to further his medical knowledge. Neither man is willing to accept the strictures imposed on their research by religion: they are guided by scientific principles and rational discourse, not the limits of revealed knowledge.

This puts them in direct conflict with the religious powers of the day, at a time when the Counter-Reformation is on the verge of sweeping over England and making life for heretics of various persuasions extremely unpleasant. Parris and Sinclair strike out for Horizon, an island on the edge of the world where the Inquisition won’t be able to reach them and, more importantly, where they may discover more about the quintessence…

Read the entire review on my site Far Beyond Reality!
Profile Image for Milo.
767 reviews81 followers
April 23, 2013
The original review can be found here: http://thefoundingfields.com/2013/04/...

“A thrilling but flawed ride through an alternate Age of Exploration.” ~The Founding Fields

I’ll admit it, the cover was the main reason why I requested a review copy of this novel off NetGalley. It just looks awesome doesn’t it? This was a book screaming must-buy, complete with ships and sea monsters, I thought I would be in for a really enjoyable novel, even if I hadn’t read anything by David Walton before. The plot sounded intriguing as well, but ultimately - this was a flawed book, and I had a few key issues with it preventing it from becoming brilliant. Whilst it’s very entertaining, and engaging, it’s also full of many cliches and lacks the potential that it had going into this book.

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.

First off, let’s look at where this book went right. The world building is fun and the plot is exciting. The Narrative is strong and the prose is well written and captivating, with some great imagination thrown in here to keep you reading. It’s an alternate history book as is evident from the blurb above, and takes place at the reign of Boy King Edward VI of England. It also really comes together to present an entertaining climax, and the philosophical ideas are also mixed together with religion, allowing for a world where neither overreaches the other. The world is flat, rather than round – allowing for an interesting look at what could have been, with magic getting stronger and stronger the further away you head towards the edge of the world.

If you’re looking for a book filled with magical creatures, superb ideas, then this may be the book for you. However, you’ll want to see what I have to say next, for there are a few noticeable flaws in this book that help it from reaching its potential. Because despite the fact that there may be more flaws than good points in this book, I still found it entertaining and enjoyable.

The first thing that this book fell short with was its cliched characters. The Spaniard Inquisitor is your typical, no-nonsense, evil villain complete with an English turncoat who is basically a “yes-man”, people who will always follow their leaders. Most characters don’t have much depth as well, Maasha Kaatra being guilty of this in partiuclar, Sinclair’s wife, who has a background straight out of a Hollywood movie. And not a very good one either. However, the characters are a bit of a mixed bag - Christopher Sinclair is a strong character and easily the most memorable and engaging one, the alchemy adding to the entertaining factor of the book because it’s not often we get to read about a main character who is an alchemist. He’s not so much a hero-type either, and not very rotatable. However, his parts are still the most interesting to read about in the book, that and the opening section, which will grab you in as it brilliantly introduces the characters, the setting, and the concept.

The book itself contains many things, and a few key elements that feature in this book are the part political thriller, part alternate-history drama, part seaborne adventure, but there are far more thrown in there as well, too many for me to mention here. It’s jam-packed full of creative ideas and if you can overlook the flaws, then you may find this book very entertaining indeed.


Profile Image for Sue.
65 reviews
March 19, 2013
Quintessence has so much going on in it that it could easily have turned into a hot mess. Thankfully, it did not. Set in the 16th century, a time of budding science, alchemy, enlightenment, superstition, as well as political and religious upheaval, Quintessence manages to blend these elements with it's own alchemy into pure gold. The two main characters, Parris, (a physician and scientist), and Sinclair, (a wiley magician and alchemist), form an unlikely team of opposites on a quest to discover the ultimate treasure: quintessence. They must voyage to the, (apparently literal), ends of the earth to pursue this dream. And what a trip it is. They endure all the rigors of sea travel--storms, near starvation, weevily biscuits, scurvy, ship-board flirtations, mutiny--as they navigate, (by beetle), to a place nearer the stars and close to the edge of the earth. The adventures intensify as they near their destination, and really don't let up until the book's very satisfying end. Walton imparts a lot of alchemical and philosophical information in the course of the book, without any awkward dumps of information. He describes many new, and delightfully original, creatures and magical situations, and its all absolutely fascinating and believable. Even with all of that going on, the pacing never lags. The characters are not cardboard. I especially enjoyed Joan's character. She begins the book as a cold, deceptive, and controlling wife to the rather sweet Parris, but she has reasons and motivations that eventually become clear, and her character changes and grows when faced with the hardships of the new land. They are all tested by their new environment, some grow with it, some reveal their true depths, and some die. Quintessence is part political thriller, part maritime adventure, part chronicle of discovery, with some magic, philosophy, romance, science, and anthropology mixed in. That may sound exhausting but it so is not. I loved reading Quintessence and I thought about it when not reading it, and I couldn't wait to get back to it, and now I'm sorry its done. Highest recommendation, and a big pearl of quintessence to the publisher for providing me with an advance copy.
Profile Image for Nathanael.
175 reviews
June 14, 2013
I'll be honest, the amazing cover was pretty much why I picked this book up to begin with. The premise was the next to intrigue me and I was (mostly) not disappointed. Walton does an amazing job of world-building, creating a flat Earth and adjusting historical events accordingly. Copernicus proves the Earth is flat, not the center of a solar system. Columbus' voyage ends in disaster and the ships never return from the ends of the Earth. In the midst of this setting, science is struggling to develop in a society in turmoil, both religious and philosophical.

The plot of the novel itself is a bit slow and it seems as if Walton added the conflict that rears its head in the last third of the story specifically because of this. However, the world he creates in this novel is refreshingly different from the usual fantasy fair and the way the characters approach the fantastic was what really made the book for me. Instead of dismissing everything that happens as magic (as most do in your standard pseudo-medieval fantasy novel), there's a real attempt at scientific observation and experimentation. I feel like you could easily compare the bulk of the story to Darwin's travels aboard the Beagle and time in the Galapagos.

Unfortunately, there are some issues with the plot where characters are forced to carry an Idiot Ball in order to maintain certain plot conflicts, which is why I had to give it three stars rather than the four I wanted to. I also really disliked the villain who enters in the third act. He's fairly flat and stereotypical in his "I'm an Evil Catholic, FEAR ME, HERETICS!!!1!" fervor. However, the end of the novel leaves room for a sequel and I would definitely read it.
Profile Image for Caroline.
1,201 reviews141 followers
March 12, 2013
This was a fun adventure story that reminded me a lot of Haggard's King Solomon's Mines or Doyle's The Lost World. Set at the end of Edward VI's short reign, the story starts off a bit slow as the characters begin exploring the magical properties of both the bodies and the items of a doomed expedition to a magical island, while also juggling the politics of the period. It easily pulled me in with all the detail work, and it didn't take long before the characters were off on their expedition.

The magic and physics of the island felt really well-done, and I enjoyed the descriptions of all the wonders. The one place this flagged for me was the dialogue and characters--it felt a bit stiff, and outside of Catherine I didn't much care what happened to anyone. Still, I was happy this was a story willing to allow a girl of 16 to be fascinated by science and want to live her life outside of her gender confines.

Definitely worth a read for fans of the old sensationalist style novels, especially for the non-stereotypical gender roles.

I was provided a free copy from the publisher via Netgalley.
Profile Image for Matt Ranlett.
Author 5 books5 followers
March 27, 2013
Excellent read with great pacing throughout most of the book. I loved how the beginning starts out with the world we know, tiny details slowly twisting that understanding into a new shape. By the end of the book everything is open for questions as to what is and isn't reality. This was an excellent alternative history vision of the Reformation and Age of Exploration.
I especially appreciated the layering of religion and philosophy - what is the true nature of the world and what is the role of the divine in a world where science can begin to explain away mysteries of the universe. A lot more could have been done here given the presence of Protestants, Catholics, Jews, racism and the Inquisition. In fact, if I were to criticize anything, it would be the heavy-handed application of the Spanish Inquisition in a remote English colony.
The characters were wonderful and the magic system was truly a character unto itself. I'm sure everyone has their favorites but I loved the preacher's son finding a role in the new world.

Highly recommend reading this one.
Profile Image for Ian Hu.
36 reviews3 followers
April 15, 2013
The beginning of David Walton's Quintessence is stirring enough: a ship full of dying men whose hull carries magical treasures sails into London and starts an adventure for Stephen Parris, the King's Physician.

The plot never lets the reader down for a second afterwards, whisking us from the rigid society of Protestant London, onto a ship sailing across unknown water, then on an island that is perched at the edge of the world. All of this is done in a fantasy-like adventure style, with new creatures and discoveries at every turn and brave, resourceful protagonists who fill the pages with their personalities.

David Walton does a great job at introducing and developing the characters; not one character remains static during the entire novel as their personalities change in face of the hardships and new surroundings. The fantasy world is very well created, with vivid descriptions of creatures and magic that makes you feel like you have seen them before.

I finished this book in two days of almost non-stop reading and from reading other reviews, I saw that others could not stop reading after having started as well. Do not open this book if there are important things going on that need your immediate attention.
Profile Image for Jason.
1,179 reviews255 followers
November 5, 2014
3 Stars

This is a high seas adventure that is filled with more ups and downs then from just the sea. Quintessence is a novel that seems to want to be for the young adult crowd, but a heavy dose of violence and a heavy load of deep subject conversations. The book is an easy read but suffers greatly from inconsistencies.

I enjoyed the traveling over the sea. There were cool creatures and adventures. The whole plot point behind the quintessence was phenomenal. I really felt the characters were the weakest point of this adventure. I never felt invested in any of them.

This is a book and a story that could have been something special. It just never pans out.
Profile Image for Pete.
3 reviews
February 21, 2018
This is a perfect example of what I like to call the "what if" story. It's a kind of story that takes a single question — one that might not even seem that momentous when it crosses your mind — and spins it out to into an entire existence, following it through down every possible thread. Being set in the 1600s, this doesn't quite fit into the steampunk genre, but its very much in the same spirit. In this case, the what if is a kind of scientific counterfactual that is the complete opposite of almost every other science fiction story ever written. In fact, it's especially ironic that the premise of this novel is so diametrically opposed to the premises of Walton's other two novels.

Fantastic world building, an extremely well-paced plot, convincing characters (with the exception of the villains in Act III, who I thought were a little cartoonish in their villainy), and a little bit of contemporary feminism thrown into the mix for fun.

I really enjoyed this. A lot.
Profile Image for Kristi.
298 reviews
May 11, 2023
Usually I’m not a big fan of historical fiction—this takes place in the 1500s—but I quite enjoyed this novel. Not much time was spent on the facts of that time period. The story quickly turned to the search for quintessence, the elixir of immortality. I liked the boldness of Catherine’s character and how her father grew to accept her curiosity. Sinclair was also an interesting person. The sentient manticores were a great addition to the story.
Profile Image for HTS.
101 reviews2 followers
March 19, 2013
First, the horribly truncated summary: An alchemist and a mortician place their trust in a beetle and take a boat full of Protestants to the end of the world.

For once, I’m not being glib!

This book was provided to me via Netgalley in return for an honest review. I would like to thank Tor/Forge for giving me this opportunity and taking me seriously.

Now, as a fan of fantasy, Tor is a recognizable staple in our household. I hold them in very high acclaim and reverence. With that in mind, I am fully confident that the advance copy I received will be free of formatting errors by the time it goes on sale.

Why mention formatting errors at all? Those errors made the dialogue a chore to get through. Those errors, coupled with a mild start and a sluggish middle, made the book difficult. I was considering putting Quintessence into my unfinished pile and submitting my review thusly.

But, as I am a masochist, I trudged through. The final thirty percent of the book made it worthwhile.

However, that first seventy percent…

We start our story aboard the Western Star, where Lord Chelsey is returning to (Tudor) England with the last thirteen men from his crew. They’ve all been dying off during the return trip and the venture is nearly a failure. The only redemption he has are the barrels full of riches he has brought back. However, the barrels of gold and diamonds have turned into useless pebbles and the miracle water has turned into seawater.

Tough luck.

He’s deemed mad when the boat docks and dies shortly thereafter. The Western Star is condemned and sold off to the only man that knows its value: Christopher Sinclair, the court magician and part-time alchemist.

Before Sinclair can fully investigate the cargo of the ship, he realizes that someone is stealing away the sailor’s bodies. It’s none other than King Edward VI’s personal physician, Stephen Parris. Parris has taken a keen interest in the lack of decomposition and has decided to further his understanding by means of dissection.

Now, cutting up bodies might be all the rage in Venice, but they still frown upon the practice in Renaissance England. Parris has to hide his “ungodly” activities in order to remain respectable at court. His wife, understandably, doesn’t like walking in on rooms filled with human gore, so they’re marriage is held by a very thin thread.

(Funny note: most male characters are referred to by their last names (there are exceptions, especially where you have a father and son on the same boat). All female characters are referred to by their first names. Not sure if intentional style choice based on era or unintentional sexism.)

Well, in order to get funds for a return trip to Chelsey’s island, Sinclair sells Parris out to the sickly king and all the doctor’s money now belongs to the sea voyage. Parris’ wife is a survivalist, so she secures her fate and leaves her husband in the cold. She tries to secure her daughter’s fate as well, but their daughter “decides” (via otherworldly force) to go with her father to the edge of the world.

Oh, and the boat is full of refugee Protestants when they set sail. Why? Tudor England.

I am cutting many of the cool bits out (magic beetle) because explaining everything would exceed my character limit.

Wait a minute! We’re starting in one of my favorite historical periods, our protagonists are a magician/alchemist and a doctor (and the doctor’s daughter), and they’re sailing to the ends of the earth with a boat full of refugees in hopes of finding out the magic behind Chelsey’s voyage? What the hell is my problem? What was so wrong that I nearly put this book down in shame?

Well, I had no emotional connection to any of these characters until the end of the book. Even then, there was really only one character I connected with, and that was the doctor’s daughter, Catherine. The rest, while doing interesting things, were not interesting in and of themselves. Some, like Parris’ wife, came off as extremely annoying.

Also, there was a lot of setup required to pull off the conclusion. I’m used to setup (obviously, as a fantasy reader), but this setup was centered in characters doing scientific experiments during the journey. Instead of action, the characters repeatedly asked questions through interior monologue that, I think, the readers could have asked themselves without author prompting.

Add to that a very stilted dialogue where names were not placed with quotes and you’ve got a very tiring mess during your middle acts. Thankfully, we reestablish a clear antagonist by the end and I was actually pleased with the outcome.

I just wish I had a better middle to go with it. 3.5 stars.
Profile Image for Jessica Strider.
512 reviews62 followers
April 14, 2015
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.
Profile Image for H. P..
607 reviews30 followers
March 12, 2013
Quintessence is an excellent example of the power of speculative fiction to explore human nature and history. Walton takes a specific point in history—the Age of Exploration and religious strife in England—and introduces fantastical elements to it to cast illumination in a particular direction. The England of Walton’s world looks a lot like the England of the mid-1500s. But there is a very, very different New World.

Quintessence opens with a crew of men returned from the New World. They’ve brought back untold riches, but they’ve also brought back a strange malady slowly stiffening their joints. And, as they discover shortly before they reach ground, those untold riches turned to rocks and sand.

One (of a few things) that sets Quintessence apart is how the characters react to magic. These are men who know nothing of magic. But they’re also men of (proto-)science. So they approach the magic wonders of the New World with a scientific curiosity. They are also, if not men of faith, men for whom faith is a matter of no small importance. And thus Walton has his prism through which to explore an intersection of science, faith, and magic.

And what results is spectacular. Walton has a great concept and is an obviously talented writer. The pacing is steady, fast, and packs in a story many writers would take a trilogy to tell. The characters are well rounded and deeply flawed.
Profile Image for Andrew.
233 reviews82 followers
June 17, 2013
A ship limps back into port -- London, sixteenth century. It's been to the edge of the world! It's seen fabulous Aristotelian foreign climes! It's found gold and spices and... wait a minute, these chests are full of sand and rocks. Also the sailors are all dying. Their bodies are full of sand and rocks too.

I feel like the author was primarily interested in his alchemical physics; the quintessence, how it works, how it interacts with everything. The rest of the plot was added so that he could keep playing with sulfur and mercury -- added piecewise, I suspect. When the good doctor's strained marriage and tragic backstory weren't enough to keep the travelogue-with-alchemy in gear, we got a headstrong daughter, an impromptu scientific society, a first-contact story, and the Inquisition. In some order. The plot threads keep crowding each other out; the alchemy is what sticks around, which is why I say it's the author's favorite.

Yes, I've written IF this way -- *fair enough*. At least in the game domain, I can keep your interest by letting *you* play with the quintessence. When my various plot threads aren't solid enough, people call me on it, and I'm calling this book on it. Nothing's *terrible*, and I got to the end in good order, but nothing in the story is quite fully-assed, either.

Furthermore: you know I said I was sick of the Evil Repressive Fundamentalist Church Story? Bringing in the *actual Spanish Inquisition* does not reconcile me to the trope.
Profile Image for Audrey.
1,028 reviews165 followers
February 6, 2018
This was a nice surprise. It's fast-paced, smart, and creative.

It's a twist on historical fiction: It's the time of King Edward and Bloody Mary, when Catholics and Protestants are at war with each other. Only Christopher Columbus's expedition vanished and never was heard from again. The earth is flat, disproving the Greek myths of it being round.

Christopher Sinclair, an eccentric alchemist obsessed with conquering death, blackmails physician Stephen Parris into joining him on an expedition to the end of the world, where the laws of nature aren't quite what they are in the center of the world.

There's plenty of danger and adventure. What stands out the most in this book is the sense of scientific curiosity. The characters are constantly learning new things and trying new experiments. This aspect was really fascinating and clever.

(Editing is pretty good. There's no swearing or sex.)
Profile Image for Mike Shultz.
60 reviews4 followers
March 24, 2013
Quintessence pulls you in immediately. I loved the mystery of the prologue, with a group of sailors returning to England with treasure chests full of sand and rocks. This sense of wonder is the central draw of the book as it takes us to Horizon, an island at the edge of a literally flat world where magic abounds. This is not your typical fantasy magic that just inexplicably exists; it follows its own elaborate and consistent rules, with which the characters experiment and discover as the story progresses. The fantastical but believable ecology of Horizon flows smoothly from this system of magic. I also loved the historical details and the all-too-rare-in-fantasy accurate portrayal of the religious lens through which people of the time period viewed everything. Oh, and it finishes great. Highly recommended.
Profile Image for Ithlilian.
1,676 reviews24 followers
Shelved as 'did-not-finish'
July 26, 2016
Alternate histories and ship based exploration stories really aren't my thing, but leave no book untried. There's a ship full of mysteries and the unexplainable that came back from an island full of wonders. Beetles that can travel through solid objects and defy the laws of nature! Our characters will discuss how these things can't possibly be real and throw around words like black magic and witchcraft until they inevitably must set out on a voyage and discover the origin of such wonders! I bet they find things there and question their sanity, and strange events happen...I'll pass. It didn't capture my attention and annoyed me with the predictability of it all.
Profile Image for PopcornReads - MkNoah.
938 reviews97 followers
March 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.
Profile Image for Andrea.
378 reviews53 followers
July 12, 2013
Wonderfully detailed world-building, set in an alternate reality universe at the time of the succession of Mary Tudor. The structure of quintessence, an alchemical life force, and its behaviour close to the edge of the (flat) world, is carefully constructed and set in a lavishly described landscape. The ideas are unique and clever, but unfortunately Mr Walton does not yet have the maturity or talent to write truly exceptionally - he misses the sheer emotional heft and visceral impact of similar works such as those by Philip Pullman. (Northern Lights - known as Golden Compass in the USA)
Profile Image for Sally.
Author 126 books310 followers
September 3, 2022
It's been a long time since a novel frustrated me as much as Quintessence. Here is a book built around a great concept, with some really interesting philosophical questions attached. It's a story that's just packed with potential, but one where I found the execution to be lacking. Make no mistake, David Walton clearly knows how to tell a story, just as he clearly knows how to construct an argument, but it felt as if he spent too much time trying to decide which would be his focus.

Let's talk structure for a moment. The novel itself is separated into three very distinct story arcs. The opening story arc was great, and did a fine job of introducing the setting, the characters, and the concept of quintessence. I devoured it in the course of two sittings, and was anxious to see what came next. The second arc, however, completely failed to sustain any of the wonder, excitement, or energy of the first. It's a slow, meandering stretch of conversation, discussion, and debate, in which very little of consequence happens. Intellectually, it's interesting, but it feels like the story paused for an extended sermon or lecture. The final arc is infinitely better, and may even have served as a fitting climax had it come directly on the heels of the first, but I was so disconnected by that point, I was only reading out of curiosity to see how it all would end.

As for characters, the protagonists are fantastic. Parris and Sinclair are established very well, right from the start, with a great rivalry of ideas and morals between them. Either one could have quite capably carried a story on his own, but together they really add something unique. Unfortunately, few of the supporting characters are able to carry their own weight. Parris' daughter, Catherine, certainly has the potential to steal the show, but she's never developed beyond the conceit of the "girl who is clever enough to have been a boy." She's too good, too perfect, and is never really challenged in terms of gender or role. For a book of such grand ideas, she could have been used exceptionally well to illustrate the 16th century plight of women, but she escapes almost every taunt, torture, or abuse you'd expect for one of the only women on a boat full of sailors, desperately longing for the comforts of home.

Furthermore, I really expected more from Maasha and Blanche, servants with typical B-grade, riches-to-rags backgrounds. Again, for a book of ideas, I really feel like Walton missed a chance to interject some commentary on racial discrimination, slavery, and even theories of evolution. In fact, I kept waiting for them to break out of their stereotypical molds, to rise to the occasion, and to play a role in setting the world right. Blanche does get a bit of a moment towards the end, albeit one that's glossed over without commentary or context, but I felt Maasha was completely wasted.

As for Diego de Tavera, the villain of the piece, he may as well be wearing a black cape, twirling a moustache, and cackling in evil glee He's your stock, stereotypical villain, a man with neither redeeming qualities nor depth. A villain worthy of Parris and Sinclair could have potentially turned the final act of the story into a climax strong enough to excuse the middle arc, but Tavera is not the man to do so. For a much-feared, much-maligned member of the Spanish Inquisition, he's neither fearsome nor interesting.

Now, let's talk about world-building. This is one area where, based on the first story arc, I really thought Walton was going to blow me away. Unfortunately, it's all rather subtle and quietly done, interwoven into the story as facts that the characters take for granted, rather than anything of note to the reader. For the longest time, I really wasn't sure whether the world was indeed flat, whether the heavens were indeed a bowl, and whether the ocean did indeed end in a cataclysmic waterfall. I just took it for granted that we were sharing in the superstitions and beliefs of characters from the 16th century, and that this bold voyage of discovery would set them right. I hate to keep harping on the big ideas but, again, this is one aspect where the book could have taken a big idea and really run with it.

Lastly, it would be doing the novel a serious disservice not to talk about those big ideas. This is a book that's as much about the nature of reality as it is about the conflict between science and religion. There's a lot of talk about what makes a man, what makes a monster, and what magic might make of each. The search for quintessence is not just the MacGuffin behind the adventure, it's the core theme of the entire story. Paired with the religious rebellion back at home, the warring religious factions on the ship, and the cultural war on the island, Walton uses quintessence to explore a lot of ideas. In terms of intellectual debate, it makes for an interesting read, but far too often at the expense of entertainment.

For the right reader - one with lower expectations, perhaps, and certainly a bit more patience - Quintessence might make for a novel read. For me, however, it just failed in too many areas. As much as I wanted to like it, and as hard as I worked to persevere to the end, it just didn't come together.

Originally reviewed at Beauty in Ruins
Profile Image for A Turtles Nest Book Reviews.
188 reviews7 followers
July 16, 2016
Loved it! I couldn't put it down and there was never a dull moment. Perfect book for escaping our daily lives for a while. I gave it 4 stars because I would have loved more exploring and discovering and less fighting by greedy men.
Profile Image for Ria Bridges.
589 reviews6 followers
April 16, 2020
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.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)
Profile Image for Anna.
21 reviews6 followers
December 30, 2021
It would be hard for me to communicate how much this book took me by surprise. If you are looking for a book full of cheap thrills, crass language, or characters that fit into the stereotypical boxes, this book is not for you. You want something unique and refreshing, with realistic characters and an escalating dilemma? Read this book. There is political intrigue, religious conflict, and interpersonal struggles that seem real, though they are most obviously placed in a world that is not our own.

First, this book communicated a sense of wonder that I think would be similar to what people felt during the age of discovery and enlightenment. For as science grew, the world explained seemed more wondrous than terrifying.
The pacing helped this too. The writer could have taken more time to explain alchemy and magic, but by not doing so, he left us to experience discoveries like the characters did. We felt perplexed, puzzled, and ultimately overwhelmed by the trial-and-error process that precedes understanding. It all felt very loose at first, but built momentum towards the end. Was everything answered at the end? No, but isn't that life? We don't always figure it all out.

Also, I found refreshing how there was an ongoing conversation between theism and atheism through a variety of different perspectives. I find myself wondering what the author believes himself, which means he did a great job of putting himself into the minds of different worldviews.

Furthermore, there are actually strong female and male characters in this book that don't have to resort to excessive violence, sex, or profanity to prove that they are strong (shocker, it can be done!). They also grow over time while still retaining their own identities - wonder upon wonders!

Finally, the ending has some surprises, leaving you wondering what would come next, even while being satisfied with how far you'd come.

In conclusion, this book is not complicated to read, and is not long, and yet is surprisingly unique. Especially taking into account the writer is relatively new and unknown. I have not read anything else by this author, nor have I read the sequel, but I most likely will out of curiosity. This book can totally be read by itself. I do not NEED to read the second book - I simply WANT to. Which is a much better way to end a book than with a desperate cliff hanger. :)
Stay calm and read books!
Profile Image for D.L. Morrese.
Author 11 books54 followers
September 24, 2017
In a fantasy version of 16th century Earth, Mary I has just assumed the throne of England (making it 1553). Protestants, or at least those who benefited from their support of Mary's younger half-brother (the former king, Edward VI), are justifiably worried that her efforts to turn England back to traditional Catholicism will cause them some difficulty (i.e. involuntary visits to the cells of the Inquisition). With this as a backdrop, the chief physic (doctor) to King Edward finds himself in dire circumstances and on a ship heading west in the company of a mysterious alchemist who is in search of wealth and magic. His goal isn't a shortcut to the Orient. You can't get to the east by heading west in this world because it's flat.

And that's about where my capacity to suspend disbelief ran out. I was okay with invisible manticores and beetles that can walk through walls, but a flat Earth? Come now. Don't get me wrong; a flat Earth done right can be a great setting. Look at Terry Pratchett's Discworld. To my mind, there is no greater fantasy world in all of fiction. But Discworld works because it is always evident that the reader is not supposed to take it too seriously. That's part of the unique charm of all Pratchett's writing. But I digress. Back to this story.

It's hard to write historical fiction without anachronisms, and I spotted a few in Quintessence (e.g. volume being measured in liters over a century too early). Of course, this story isn't really historical fiction. It's fantasy. It has magic and monsters and mysterious forces, some of which are quite imaginative, but they are neither believable nor fun. That is, this isn't epic fantasy of a Tolkien sort, nor is it fantasy of a more traditional sort, like that of fairy tales (or Discworld, for that matter). I never knew quite what to make of it. Needless to say, neither the plight of the characters nor the plot of story engaged me. I was, however, sufficiently motivated to read on to discover where the author what going with this.
Profile Image for anarresa.
107 reviews1 follower
January 21, 2023
An epic fantasy, but instead of medieval Europe this is pre-Elizabethean filled with alchemy and scientific inquiry. In this universe the world is flat, like a paper map. Where the ocean spill over the edge of the world natural laws are broken and fantastical creatures exist. It is an area attractive to adventurers and researchers, including the captain of the Western Star, recently returned to England with all passengers dead from mysterious causes.

Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist (and con artist) who has searched the center of the world for the key to immortality and sees the edge as the place where he could find it and the cursed (and cheap) Western Star his way to get there. Stephen Parris is a physic (doctor) who failed to save his son and is now willing to break religious and societal rules to discover how the body works and the best ways to heal them. During the tumult after the death of the Protestant king and the ascension of the Catholic Queen Mary they, along with the passengers and crew looking to create a colony or escape religious persecution, are rushed out of England and have to discover the secrets of the edge to survive.

I love the imaginative creature and rules of this alternate universe, but I didn't really connect with the characters. I think it was just personal preference, not that I didn't understand them. There are several central characters who were well developed and the story moves forward neatly using their points of view. A larger cast adds excitement and humor. I see a second book listed but this one is a full, though introductory, story on its own.
Profile Image for Crystal (Goddess in the Stacks).
281 reviews6 followers
February 1, 2018
WOW where do I start with this one?! Quintessence is a fantastical tale, set in an alternate Victorian Age England. In this reality, the world really IS flat, and the sun and stars are a half dome over the earth, meaning they're much closer to the earth at the edges of the world. Our main characters are Dr. Parris and his daughter Catherine, part of an expedition to an island on the edge of the world, populated by fantastical creatures, where lines of magical "quintessence" power strange abilities.

This book was fantastic. I keep using that word - but it's the perfect word for this book! There's -just- enough romance to give it that happy-ever-after feeling at the end, but the romance was by no means integral to the plot. Walton wove together magical creatures, political intrigue, colonization issues, philosophy, and troubles with the natives into one coherent, magical tale. I LOVED it. I see on his Amazon page that there's a sequel - Quintessence Sky - but I'm not sure I want to spoil the perfection that is the first book by taking the chance on the second!

I picked this book up largely because of the gorgeous cover art, but it does not disappoint. If you like steampunk, you should read this book.

You can find all my reviews at Goddess in the Stacks.
Profile Image for Jasper.
419 reviews37 followers
August 6, 2013
Originally posted athttp://thebookplank.blogspot.com/2013/08/quintessence.html

Quintessence takes places in an alternate version of Europe back in the Age of Exploration. The start of the book was really solid for me and actually the book can be divided into three parts. The first part takes place in England (an alternate version) where you meet up with two of the main characters: Stephen Parris and Christopher Sinclair. Stephen Parris works as a physic for the king but has an odd hobby in dissection corpses to find out how the in working of the human body goes about. Now this might sound a bit horrifying, it isn’t anything like that. Sinclair is an alchemist with a mind set on only one thing, finding the quintessence. A substance so powerful that it might even grant immortality. Due to the odd hobby of Parris, he is finds out several peculiar things about several bodies that came into port. Stones and salt in their stomachs amongst others.

The second part of the book mainly takes place in the seafaring expedition led by Sinclair. Here the explorers venture west to the lands known as the Horzion, the alternate version of America. The time spend on sea isn’t without perils. The “usual” disease that can happen onboard pose a large threat for the crew but also other more unusual things make an appearance, Behemoths, Leviathan and other types of sea monsters.

And then last and definitely not the least is the venture on Horizon themselves and this place proved for me to be so fantastic. The build-up towards this part of the story was neatly done, each time building up the pace and then finally introducing this sought after place. However even on this island not everything is what is seems, they had set out to find paradise but discovered much more.

The storyline began at a nice pacing with clear introduction to the different characters. But once you delved deeper into the magical aspects of the book the pace only increased as I wanted to learn more and more about the whole alternate universe that David Walton had created in Quintessence. Because the prologue and the first part introduced me to the magical creatures that inhabit the Horizon. And the way how David Walton showed them was quite amazing, starting of with a beetle that could move through most objects but also finding limitations there. But it doesn’t only stay with beetles as there are a lot more new creatures like monkeys, fishes, worms and even the mythical like manticores. It was mainly what they could do and how they did it that was nicely portrayed but this whole element was given a great secondary structure by how the scientists, Sinclair and Parris went about in search for explaining this unnatural behaviour and abilities. This quest for exploration taken together with the oddities that they find along their journey gave me a great rich feeling of the world as a whole. I cannot find any fault of David Walton’s richly imagined world. If I could, I would strap on some boots and start exploring Horizon myself!

The characters are just as great as the imagined world. Like I said there are two main protagonists, Parris and Sinclair. They are drawn out in quite the details constantly playing key in taking the story further. However they aren’t always on one line. Parris’ character goes a bit deeper since the loss of his son, which plagues him daily makes him quite protective of his daughter. Sinclair's goals only becomes more clear as they make their journey and once they are on Horizon. There are a lot of secondary characters like the wife of Parris and his daughter, Catherine. Now Catherine is shown to be a girl who likes to do, for that time unheard of boy stuff, but is isn’t stressed, it feels natural. She’s smart and resourceful and shown in a solid manner. David Walton doesn’t tackle the cliche with here character instead voices her perfectly.

Where I thought this would turn out to be a story of new discoveries, David Walton neatly integrates a secondary threat to the story. For me this twist came quite unexpected but looking back this might could have been anticipated. But whether or not, I found the introduction of a bad guy to the story actually quite intriguing. What I didn’t mention about Parris and Sinclair’s journey is that they left in the spur of the moment, or they had to leave since the kind died and they had to flee. Back in England there was a political struggle going on, including the Spaniards. Now you might now who the bad guys is but it was a great addition to the storyline over all. Especially since they aren’t quite into the full details of the quintessence.

And that brings me to the last part. Quintessence. Just amazing. I don’t have words for it but the way David Walton shows this piece of magic, how it is in relation to each being from Horizon, how it is in the water they drink. Utterly amazing. Just coming back to an early part, like I said the Age of Exploration and discovery. It was very cool to read about how the scientists went about and tried to explain several occurrences brought along by the quintessence and how they went on experimenting nullifying it or amplifying it.

Quintessence is an amazing book. The world building alone in this small book is of epic proportions, I wouldn’t have thought that it would turn out to be such an rich story. The characters, especially Parris and his daughter Catherin were shown in a brilliant manner. The twists and turns only became more once the discoveries behind quintessence were made and gave a fantastic portray of just what was possible. Then there is only Horizon left, just amazing. From the water to the fruits to the creatures and they surroundings. Quintessence is an richly imagined story.
Profile Image for Russ Jarvis.
Author 7 books1 follower
July 5, 2017
I'm catching up my reviews and it's been a while since I read this book. I remember starting out intrigued, but then the story flattened out midway and lost speed for me. I finished it and have no major complaints, but I think it is more suited for a younger reader who is starting to explore speculative fiction in otherworldly settings. I will recommend it to my grandson when he enters double-digits. Hopefully it will wet his appetite for a life of searching for what lies beyond his horizons.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 142 reviews

Can't find what you're looking for?

Get help and learn more about the design.