The Age of Exploration…And Magic
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.
Quintessence has a self-published sequel, Quintessence Sky, which I haven’t read.