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.
Published March 19th 2013 by Tor Books
Hardcover, 320 pages