Monday, June 9, 2014

Quintessence (David Walton)

David Walton
Fiction, Fantasy
*** (Okay)

DESCRIPTION: For years, the Spanish Inquisition has swept Europe, with whole towns being tortured and burned for heresies real and imagined. Thus far, Protestant England has been spared the torch... but, with young King Edward on the brink of death and the exiled Catholic Mary prepared to fight to inherit his crown, trouble is coming. Stephen Parris, a physician to the king, already presses his luck by daring to dissect dead bodies - a sure sign of sorcery, even in relatively enlightened England, and a secret that would cost him his job and his fortune should his liege discover it. Should the Papists come to power, mere imprisonment would seem a mercy - and, with a Catholic-sympathizer wife and an innocent daughter on the brink of womanhood to protect, he can't risk discovery. Nevertheless, one night the infamous alchemist Christopher Sinclair comes calling with a threat and an offer. Sinclair, like Parris, seeks knowledge that the rest of the world deems heretical: mastery over Death itself, a direct challenge to God. Unlike Parris, Sinclair believes the answer lies in the mysterious alchemical fifth element known as quintessence... and he believes it can only be found on a legendary island at the very edge of the earth, where the western ocean pours into the void and the sun itself sinks to die every night. Parris and his inquisitive daughter, Catherine, soon find themselves caught up in Sinclair's voyage, a journey fraught with both miracles and peril.

REVIEW: Walton establishes an excellent, imaginative alternate world, where the earth is flat and alchemy is real... then burdens it with stiff characters and Christian subtexts until the whole story flounders under the extra weight. It starts slow, but with enough intriguing hints of otherness to keep things interesting. Over time, it manages to pick up some steam, especially once they finally get clear of England and on their voyage of discovery. The peculiar flora and fauna of the lost land of Horizon (and the surrounding waters), riddled with quintessence, make for interesting mind's-eye candy. Ultimately, though, many of these interesting ideas fall flat. The manticores - sapient inhabitants of Horizon with a superficial resemblance to the legendary beast - rarely come into their own as more than plot devices, despite some tantalizing hints of their utterly alien, quintessence-based physiology and culture. The characters never quite live up to their potential, either, save in a few forced leaps of growth toward the very end. It all builds to a climax that hinges on the limits of humanity's powers over life and death, and where the line between Man's dominion over the world and God's dominion over eternity lies. I read this book because the premise looked neat, not because I wanted to be preached at by Walton's characters. Despite its undeniably imaginative setting, ultimately this book winds up feeling as flat as the world it creates.

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