John Crowley’s Aegypt Quartet asks the question, “What if there was more than one history of the world?”; David Walton’s Quintessence, on the other hand, actually explores one of these alternate histories. It is set in a world that follows the rules of known science in the sixteenth century–which means the world is flat and alchemy is possible.
Lord Chelsey arrives from a voyage to the edge of the world on board the Western Star, but his arrival in London is unlike any undergone during the Age of Exploration. His entire crew is dead before they dock and the diamonds, gold, and silver that they brought from the distant continent of Horizon has turned to salt and sand.
Christopher Sinclair wants to find out why. A world explorer with enlightened views of science in a scholastic society that still reveres Aristotle as the final authority of knowledge, he has his eyes set on Horizon, a continent literally situated at the end of the world. In Protestant England he is feared as a sorcerer and a heretic, but he is really an alchemist who employs the empirical methodology of Sir Francis Bacon decades before the founding of the Royal Society.
Stephen Parris, a surgical doctor, is similarly beset by a European culture that misunderstands his work. Cutting corpses open to see how the human body works is considered a desecration of the sacred, but it is what obsesses Parris: the chance to see how illnesses work and find a way to cure them. Both Parris and Sinclair are united in their quest to conquer death using science, but they are at cross-purposes until the Spanish-led Catholics coup the Protestant kingdom and an inquisition descends on them both.
Soon Parris, Sinclair, and Catherine, Parris’ adventurous daughter who is eager for science as well and has made the acquaintance of a mysterious manticore, are off on an epic ocean voyage to discover the remains of Lord Chelsey’s colony. Sinclair leads the desperate crew onward with the promises of wealth and riches, but he really has eyes for only one thing: to discover the secrets of quintessence, the fifth element than binds earth, air, fire, and water.
Quintessence may be called the quintessential historical fantasy, situated as it is at the historical moment where what we consider fantasy is about to give way to rigorous science, as superstition slowly becomes erudition at the end of sixteenth century. Only in this alternate history, the fantasy stays through the dawn of science.
What is truly original about Walton’s historical fantasy, more than the idea of alchemy being real, is his combination of the ideas of quintessence and Darwinism in his explanation of the evolution of magical Horizon creatures. From the leviathan in the great ocean to the iron fish that can transform at will into heavy metal to the memory-sharing manticores, all the creatures on Horizon use quintessence to hunt or protect themselves from hunters in a science-magical ecosystem. Slowly the settlers learn from these creatures’ physiognomies in order to develop new kinds of technology.
Quintessence is a unique mix of historical fantasy that never forgets its historical situation, even if it might introduce Darwinism in all but name, along with other modern ideas–that’s the game of alternate history, after all. It is also unique in being equally a science fantasy. Finally, it’s a fun comment on some tropes of sixteenth century colonization and exploration, such as the voyages of Christopher Columbus, John Cabot, Sir Humphrey Davies, Sir Walter Raleigh, and Ferdinand Magellan, who were each either lost at sea, brought worthless metals home thinking they were gold and diamonds, founded failed colonies, converted the natives, or made Europeans aware of the true size of the globe.
The sequel to John Crowley’s Aegypt (The Solitudes), Love & Sleep continues the story of Pierce Moffet’s quest to write his history of histories, a book that in which he will propose that there is more than one history of the world.
He must decide what to do with the posthumous, unfinished manuscript of historical novelist Fellowes Kraft. The novel still sits at the famed writer’s office desk, a book that Pierce believes his entire past has prepared him to find.
I feel that my labour over the last several years has prepared me to read Crowley’s Love & Sleep. Researching the philosopher Giordano Bruno and studying the life of John Dee for my historical novel Intelligence has given me the tools I need to appreciate Crowley’s series in a way I would not have otherwise. It is like Pierce and I are mirrors of each other. I can only hope to impart some of my awe-inspired appreciation of this novel’s beauty to my readers.
If you are looking for an Appalachian novel (that’s right, there are hillbillies) that includes not only a parallel story set in England during Elizabethan age, but also an account of small town life during the 1970s New Age movement, and, among other antique delights, an alchemist’s allegorical romance, then you have no other choice than to read Love & Sleep, because there is no other novel that offers those elements in conjunction, trust me.
In 1952, when he is still a boy, Pierce accidentally sets a forest on fire while burning a trash heap at his uncle’s house. This fire links his life to that of a mountain girl, who he comes to shelter from her abusive mother, their babysitter for the summer. With his cousins, he makes a secret club called the Invisible College, which swears to protect her. By the end of the summer, Pierce loses his innocence and makes the fall towards adulthood.
Switch around the numbers of this fateful year buried deep in Pierce’s past, and you get 1592, the year the Inquisition arrested the heretic Giordano Bruno in Venice.
Suddenly the story switches from the past to the historical past, and we see, as if from an excerpt of Fellowes Kraft’s masterpiece, Giordano Bruno, the philosopher who wishes to announce a new age of the earth, arriving at the Elizabethan court during the 80s–the 1580s, that is.
Thrown out of Oxford as a lecturer for his controversial Copernican ideas, which not only postulate the sun as center of the solar system, but imply there is no center of the universe itself, Bruno seems destined to meet the other great polymath of the age, John Dee. Sworn to an occult quest with his companion Edward Kelley, Dee comes under the spell of the angel Madimi, who appears as a seven-year-old girl to Kelley, his scrier, in a seeing-stone. Their devotion to finding out the secrets of the universe from the angels will take them to Prague, and the Holy Roman Emperor Emperor Rudolph II’s court, where an ailing Emperor is searching for the Work.
In the 1970s, the adult Pierce is without driver’s license, labouring to compile a book for his agent. It will tell the history of histories, arguing that the world has not always been what it has since become. History can be divided into cycles, where different ideas and philosophies of defining reality come and eventually go, in sudden paradigm shifts that leave those in the present looking back wondering. In the new age, the future is different too and the past is no longer the same past. The late sixteenth century, a time of religious strife and warfare and desperate uncertainty, was one age of transition, an time that saw the abandoning of magical ways of thinking and the rise modern science. Though gemstones and amulets in the old world may have been able to cure sickness or even sink the Spanish Armada, in this world, the world we live in, their powers are lost.
The 1970s is another age of transition. Modernity finds itself struggling with its own liberation from the past. All the presumably dubious developments of the New Age movement–climacterics, astrology, miracle cures, auras–find a fresh popularity. However, this New Age is not new in any sense, for these alternative sciences were standard fare in the Renaissance.
While Pierce labours under the debilitating pall of melancholy, a medieval disease afflicting academics, in the picturesque New York State town of Blackbury Jambs, old Boney Rasmussen is after the secret for immortal life. Kraft’s only real friend, Boney is obsessed with using the resources of the Rasmussen Foundation to locate an object of exceptional value. A Holy Grail, a Philosopher’s Stone of sorts, it is also, perhaps, the one thing Pierce needs in order to tie his project together: an object that has maintained its magical virtue from the passing of one age to the other. It could be a powder, a crystal, a stone, a liquid–anything. But it could be anywhere–or everywhere.
While the premise of Love & Sleep sounds like it appeals to those interested in yet another Illuminati thriller of the Dan Brown tradition, Crowley’s mastery as a novelist sets him in a higher sphere. I rank him among the great literary novelists. His style is so rich and multi-layered, every scene and image finding layers of allegorical or symbolic meaning whether through coincidence, conjunction, or parallels with the sixteenth century, that you cannot read Love & Sleep fast, but contemplatively, tasting the implications of each sentence.
Life moves in the quiet rhythms of rural life. Any big, celestial revelations which mark the shocking but cheap ends of scenes in The DaVinci Code do not draw cries of exclamation in Love & Sleep, so much as produce smooth ripples on the surface. Crowley’s style is fluid, the dialogue realistic; how he captures the stilted feel of real conversations is a magic in itself. I cannot fathom his process of plotting these books or how he plans them at all, but somehow, every note is there, each scene a verse of poetry.
I find myself nodding in recognition at all the things the characters notice in their world, things as ordinary as the pink bubblegum medicine Rosie Rasmussen gives her daughter Sam to cure her earache and the joy of what it’s like to sit in bed and pull down an encyclopedia on magical phenomena to read an entry on werewolves. Pierce takes such a book down when he was young, called A Dictionary of Deities, Devils and Daemons of Mankind, by Alexis Payne de St.-Phalle. (Whose name, by the way, is hilarious.) For me, this book was The Sorcerer’s Companion: A Guide to the Magical Worlds of Harry Potter. While the latter book led me to an interest in the Philosopher’s Stone, and then eventually to my novel Intelligence, Pierce’s Dictionary leads him to discover the land of Aegypt. And I think that John Crowley’s Aegypt sequence will form the inspiration for my Master’s thesis.
Love & Sleep is impossible to faithfully sum up in so short a space, but I have done the best I can to explain how astonishing it is. It goes far beyond typical historical fantasy, into the realms of magic realism and literary fiction, yet it never drops the ball on historical fantasy. Aegypt shows how ‘Fallen’ modern humanity can nonetheless glimpse another world that once existed, a world entirely separate from our own shopping mall-ridden, consumerist, parking lot-favouring, entertaining-ourselves-to-death, hyperreal, media-saturated society, a world that was just as much of a fluke as ours is today, to gently paraphrase Brian Attebery. John Crowley weaves a story that stands apart from every other novel I know, accomplishing what many writers of the fantastic have only attempted to do: he shows the mythic resonances of our own twenty-first century lives.