Three months ago, twelve-year-old Alma moved to the town of Four Points. Her panic attacks started a week later, and they haven’t stopped — even though she told her parents that they did. Every day she feels less and less like herself.
Then Alma meets the ShopKeeper in the town’s junk shop, The Fifth Point. The ShopKeeper gives her a telescope and this message:
Find the Elements.
Grow the Light.
Save the Starling.
That night, Alma watches as a star—a star that looks like a child—falls from the sky and into her backyard. Alma knows what it’s like to be lost and afraid, to long for home, and with the help of some unlikely new friends from the Astronomy Club, she sets out on a quest that will take a little bit of astronomy, a little bit of alchemy, and her whole self.
QUINTESSENCE is a stunning story of friendship, self-discovery, interconnectedness, and the inexplicable elements that make you you.
Quintessence by Jes Redman seemed like exactly the type of book I would love: a whimsical middle-grade fantasy with a whole lot of heart. Unfortunately, however, poor characterization combined with awkward plot elements and an over-the-top effort to be mystical meant the book did not meet my expectations. I persevered through the end, but Quintessence simply does not possess the magic I had hoped for.
The problems I had with the book were evident from the start, with the narrator desperately trying to sound deep by using a series of short, simple sentences; talking about stars and the main character’s inner “Alma-ness,” and going on and on about our interconnectedness. Normally, I would appreciate a story about a young girl finding herself and finding friends to rely on, but there is a point where a book can lay on the messages a little too thick. I wanted to say, “Yes, I got it. We all have an inner essence that needs to shine! I got it!” But the book simply does not trust readers to get it. Not without being reminded on nearly every page.
Perhaps the characters or the story could have redeemed the poor writing, but, unfortunately, they did not. The characters are only very sketchily drawn, making it difficult to understand them or sympathize with them. And there are some strange choices made in regards to the characterization, too, that do not make a lot of sense. Alma, for instance, has panic attacks, but the book refuses to name what her mysterious “episodes” are until nearly halfway through, making them seem scarier and more abnormal than they have to be. Her one friend is described as socially inept and sounding like a “robot,” but nothing more is explained here. Her other friend seems to be having trouble fitting into her “perfect” friend group of pretty, popular girls–but this thread is left unexplored. The fourth main character is a bully and his actions are ultimately excused/glossed over because he has a troubled home life, as if that is enough to mean that the others should forgive him and accept his behavior. (It’s not.) In the end, I really had no idea who any of these characters really are, or why I should care about them.
And then there is the bizarre plot. Of course, books with fantasy elements or quests often have the protagonists going into danger to save someone else. Quintessence…does this in a bit of a concerning way. Essentially, the whole quest to save a Starling (young star) and send her back into the sky is set up by the mysterious Shopkeeper, an old man dedicated to sending stars home. He encourage the kids to go into dangerous situations and the whole quest is framed as necessary for Alma to find herself and, ultimately, to overcome her panic attacks. This awkwardly means the book seems to be saying that Alma needs to put herself in danger and lie to her parents in order to heal herself.
And some of these dangerous situations are a little too realistic to read as just a fantasy quest. For instance, Alma sneaks out of her room almost every night (lying about it) to do things like explore a cave in the dark with no equipment and no map, get on an unscheduled bus with a sketchy-looking bus driving to travel to a mountain in the dead of night, and hold a glass aloft with a little lightning rod in order to I guess catch lighting in her hands. The Shopkeeper condones all this and even sets it up. It is suggested that he is actually the weird-looking bus driver in disguise. He’s also the “therapist” who writes a cryptic note to Alma’s parents about her need to see someone. He then lures her into a school broom closet alone with her to “give her advice.” This would be less concerning, again, if the story did not set this all up as good and proper and necessary because Alma’s parents just do not understand her, and she simply has to do these things in order to be whole again. But there is a difference between taking risks and living life to the fullest, and endangering one’s life by being foolish. I’m sorry, but walking into broom closets with strange men and trying to get struck by lightning on purpose are not ways to find one’s self.
Quintessence means well. After all, a sympathetic portrayal of a girl with panic attacks who moves to a new town and finds a friend group who appreciate her is the type of thing most readers would applaud. The execution of the vision, however, leaves something lacking. In the end, the book did not win me over.