Quintessence is the second of two fabulous books I have been reading with exploration and maritime adventure at the centre of them. It is an historical fantasy set at the end of Edward VI's reign (mid-sixteenth century). The world is like ours, but it has been proven to be flat. The book opens with an English Admiral returning to London with a ship full of rocks and sand and a crew who are all dead within a few days. An alchemist, seeking to uncover the mysteries of life, wants to take the Admiral's ship and return to the mysterious island that he claims to have found at the edge of the world. The King's doctor and his family become entangled in this journey through both religious conflicts and scientific curiosity and the stage is set for an epic adventure that dwells on the themes of obsession, colonialism and religion.
Walton's writing reminds me of Tim Powers in that he creates a really strong historical background onto which he maps the fantastical elements of the story. He gives a lot of consideration to the struggle between Catholicism and Protestantism that was prominent in England and much of Europe at the time. He also demonstrates a strong understanding of the issues of colonists and the colonised. These strong backgrounds enable him to give his characters powerful motives which makes for a great plot (although there is a bit of deus ex machina at the end).
I loved all of the characters, Parriss (the King's doctor) was probably my favourite as he is struggling with so many things throughout the story. The creatures of the island and surrounding ocean are all beautifully imagined too, and the science (or alchemy) of it is credibly thought out. As with Emilie and the Hollow World (my last review) I tasted notes of The Odyssey and Voyage of the Dawn Treader. I loved the whole feel of this novel - it felt quite genuinely sixteenth century - and the sense of excitement at exploration. Highly recommended.