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Quintessence by David WaltonFour stars
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David Walton is a name probably unknown to many of you, despite his having tied for the 2008 Philip K. Dick award for his small press debut, Terminal Mind. He won't stay unknown for long. The man has brought his A-game to Quintessence, a stunningly imagined adventure saga written with an assured hand that weaves alternate history, an alternate universe, science, religion and philosophy into a story that's gripping to the last. It's a tale of discovery that's a mind-blowing discovery for the reader.

Walton sets his story on a flat Earth, with the sky a firmament and a void below us. (Presumably it isn't turtles all the way down.) The Age of Exploration is in full swing. England is reeling from the potential strife to come as the consumptive King Edward is at death's door, and the subsequent battle for the throne between his chosen heir, Lady Jane Grey, and his sister Mary, the heir by blood, will put the country's Catholics and Protestants at each other's throats. With England's staunchly Catholic arch-enemy Spain taking an interest, things may go very badly for followers of the Reformation. (This is turning into a popular period for historical fantasy. Mark Chadbourn has also tapped it for his fantastic Swords of Albion series.)

A ship, the Western Star, has returned from the western edge of the world, its crew dead or dying, its hold full of treasures that turn out to be rocks and sand. It has also brought back a surprising stowaway. The curious fate of this voyage captures the attention of two men. Stephen Parris is the king's doctor, secretly performing dissections of corpses, who discovers the sailors' bodies are themselves suffused with salt and sand, showing unusual resistance to decay. Christopher Sinclair is an alchemist, and what people in a more lettered time would have called a mountebank, a man whose roguish charm takes the edge off an innate sleaziness.

Sinclair is convinced that the ship's original destination — a mythic island at the world's edge called Horizon — is the source of the prima materia, the Philosopher's Stone, quintessence. The medievalist's equivalent of the Higgs boson, it's the primary metaphysical substance from which all other matter is made. Sinclair is convinced Horizon holds the solution to his ultimate goal, to defeat death itself. Sinclair, through some devious machinations, buys the Western Star and ropes Parris, along with the doctor's headstrong daughter Catherine, into a return voyage west. And none too soon, as Edward's sudden death is sending his supporters and England's Protestants fleeing the country in panic.

From the prologue, the book never dials down the excitement. Walton is something of a literary alchemist himself. He has distilled his narrative to storytelling craft in its best and purest form, never self-indulgent, always focused on maximizing the reader's emotional involvement. It's a page-turner. Pacing is brisk, yet not so much it overwhelms narrative depth. Character development is sensitive and, for the most part, resists cliché. Suspense is tight and surprises are always around the proverbial corner. It may seem an overused trope to cast Catherine in the familiar (and seemingly anachronistic) role of proto-feminist rebel, chafing against patriarchal attitudes and gender roles, ready and able to take her place among the men as a scientific thinker and fearless explorer. But the sober truth is that even in 2013, we live in a culture that disrespects and devalues women's contributions and participation in traditionally male-dominated fields. And however many stories out there have offered us heroic Catherines to root for, it's a fact that the message her kind of character sends is still relevant and necessary.

I found it a pleasant surprise that there were so many ideas to admire in a book from an author who comes from such a very different place, philosophically, than I do. From reading his blog, I'd say his own beliefs have given him some ideas on the nature of science that are — how do I put this politely? — eccentric. Regardless, Walton has constructed a story that legitimately can be called science fiction, and good science fiction to boot. It describes men and women in an age of discovery using every intellectual tool at their disposal to learn the facts about their world, to experiment with what they find, to argue and repeat and keep pushing forward until they get the answers right. It's a story propelled by its heroes' insatiable thirst for knowledge. And that is science to its core.

Walton is brutally unflinching in portraying the horrors of tyrannical theocracy, though, presumably being Protestant, he may not have had too many qualms about giving his Catholic Spaniards a good kicking. (The colony's Protestant missionary, Bishop Marcheford, is wholly sympathetic and even gets to be a rebel hero.) But this leads to the one part of the novel that some readers, whatever their own religious disposition, are going to find off-putting: that in its final chapters, the story's tone shifts from one rooted in the thrill of adventure and discovery, to one dominated by horrific and often shocking chaos and violence. The transition is jarring, however undeniably effective. And it is meant to be. But throughout its penultimate scenes, the tale remains entirely riveting.

David Walton is a tremendous storyteller, and Quintessence is a rousing and often brilliant epic that deserves to place him among the genre's stars.