Paperback 926 pages (October 7, 2004)
Category(ies): Fiction (Historical/Fantasy)
This is the first volume of the Baroque Cycle, and I've been after the cycle for quite a while. It probably didn't help that it wasn't shelved with the rest of Stephenson's work - the SF&F shelves, but in the general fiction area. Well, duh, I should have looked there earlier.
This volume is divided into three books, and is mostly concerned with the English and near-European scene between the 1660s and the 1680s. The first and second books follow different stories with different protagonists, with the third then returning to the characters of the first.
Ah, perhaps a better breaking down is in order. OK:
1 - Quicksilver. This starts with our introduction to Daniel Waterhouse, at Cambridge a fellow student of Isaac Newton, aide and friend thereto, from a Puritan family, learning to keep his head down during the English Restoration. Daniel is a Natural Philosopher, becoming a courtier among the anti-Cromwellian court, the acceptable face of the strong Protestant tendencies. This book also contains a framing story, concerned with his return from Boston, Mass. to England in 1713, with a whole fleet of pirates attempting to stop him. Otherwise, this is understandably mostly set in Cambridge and London. In general, 1661- 1673
2 - King of the Vagabonds. We now have a complete switch of characters, skipping forward a decade to when Jack Shaftoe, a shifty ne'er-do-well gets involved in the raising of the Siege of Vienna. In pursuing loot, he manages to gain a sword, a fine horse and, somewhat disconcertingly, a harem slave, Eliza, from the Turkish camp. Oh, and some silk and ostrich feathers. Off they decide to set for Amsterdam, to sell the loot (well, not Eliza - she turns out to be the brains). With Europe a mess of small wars, many due to the Turks (though they are now being expelled) and many to the Protestant/Catholic struggles, the journey is a long one, and full of incident. Instead of Newton, we have Liebniz.1683-1685
3 - Odalisque. This brings us back to Daniel, but we're now been entwined with Eliza, who is becoming quite a force in the Amsterdam markets, and the court of Versailles. Meanwhile, though we've lost sight of Jack, his elder brother Bob does appear. We see the fall of James II and the arrival of William and Mary to displace him.1685-1689
On the way, there is much discussion of science, mathematics, alchemy, cryptography, economics (Eliza has some interesting schemes to use stock market upsets to make economic war), the family trees of the European royal families (more like a hedge, all intertwined as they are), and of course politics.
It's very strongly grounded in history, but there is a little bit of a fantastical nature on occasion - Eliza apparently comes from the Isle of Qwlghm, which would possibly be Man if Man wasn't, well, Man. And of course, he's played a few liberties with history. But there isn't any magic, no spells, no strange beasts (except during Walpurgisnacht in the Hartz mountains and we know Jack to be drugged out of his mind at that point). So when I mark it as Fantasy, it's mostly because Stephenson writes with a science-fictional awareness of the possibilities, of change, of the importance of ideas, that most novelists would not.
One thing that did annoy me - at the start of volume 2,there is a quote from a review in Starburst that said those that compared this to Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow were being lazy, only then to compare it to Tolkein. No, it's nothing like LotR, you idiot. It's like GR in the depth, the circuitousness of story, the frankly almost overbearing detail, and the anti-hero nature of the protagonists. Oh, and the realistic earthiness of the descriptions. One *bitch-slap* for that Starburst reviewer who presumably always compares big fat trilogies with LotR.
In general - very strongly recommended.