What are English politics doing in a fantasy novel? Providing the back story to one of the best alternative history novels in years. The young king Edward is dying, and England’s many Protestants fear his sister Mary will ascend to throne and demand the return of Catholicism. But for Parris, it doesn’t really matter which religion gains power. Either would condemn his actions as devil worship. But the court physician is unable to control his obsession with learning everything about life and medicine, and he continues his risky autopsies right up until the moment he is brought a corpse with sand in his stomach and salt water in his veins. The man was a sailor on what seemed to be a failed expedition to edge of the world, the ship returning to harbor only to have the last survivor die. But Sinclair the alchemist sees more than dead bodies, boxes of sand, and barrels of brine. He decides to return to the island the sailors claimed to have found, and he intends Parris to go too…and an attack on the physician’s daughter Catherine by an invisible beast proves ample persuasion. But getting to the island is only half the story, and perfect worlds tend to have more than a fair share of problems.
I studied English in college, both the writing and the history, and the period this book is set in is well loved by many historians. Many alternative history stories research enough details to get by, but Quintessence was seeped in facts and attitudes that grounded the book firmly in the fifteen hundreds even as it soared off into a fantastical land of youth. There were moments where I had to forcibly stop feeling like I was reading a novel by Shakespeare. All his favorite elements were there, and the language and modes of thinking remained consistent and completely believable.
As for the fantasy plot itself, magic and science fought and complimented each other all through the pages. The attention to the little details of the flora and fauna of the island was of scientific caliber, and the creatures themselves sprang from the pages and into the imagination. Beetles that pass through walls only to be trapped in a box from a special tree, fish that turn to iron, and a sentient telepathic species of tamarin are merely wonders the characters encounter before reaching the island itself.
While the conniving Sinclair and the scientific Parris made an amazing pair of complicated foils, it was Parris’ daughter Catherine who stole the show. A young woman thirsty for knowledge and brimming over with questions, her role expanded from accidental victim to leader and explorer. Quick to keep their own council she and her friend and peer Matthew manage to get into many scrapes, but they also become invested in the island in a way the older two men never manage. In the end, it their passion rather than the knowledge and cunning of the expedition leaders that serves everyone best, lending new meaning to the term Island of Youth.