Book Review: King of the Vagabonds by Neal Stephenson (Book 2 of the Baroque Cycle)

King of the Vagabonds is the second book of the Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and the second book in the first volume Quicksilver (2003) (see previous review).  This book is very different from it predecessor.  In fact it has an entirely different cast of characters.  Gottfried Leibniz made a cameo in book 1 appears in this book as The Doctor, and of course the mysterious Enoch Root makes appearances in the way that he ties together all of these stories.

The king of the vagabonds is Jack Shaftoe, an adventurer slowly slipping into madness due to syphilis and known as “Half-Cocked Jack” due to a failed attempt to heal him of the disease that leaves him with a mutilated member. While illiterate and uneducated, he is very intelligent although he lacks impulse control and is drawn to do mad things by the imp of the perverse.

One of these acts is chasing after an ostrich at the Turkish siege of Vienna.  This leads him to the underground chamber of the Grand Turk’s harem.  Here he meets and rescues the enslaved Eliza.  They set off across Europe to sell the goods Jack looted.  It’s soon apparent however that Eliza is the brains behind the operation and rather than quickly selling and running she establishes complex investment schemes that could make them fabulously wealthy.  If Jack doesn’t screw everything up that is.

This book’s strength is the witty repartee between Jack and Eliza, and thus suffers when the two characters are split up near the end, although not too much.  The book also ends without much of climax which makes one realize that it is more a part of a larger work than something that can stand on its own.  It will be interesting to see how the story lines come together.  It’s like the stories of these individuals represent the birth of the modern world. If Daniel Waterhouse is a personification of the birth of modern science, then Eliza is the epitome of modern business and commerce.