Quicksilver (2003) is the first of three volumes in the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, itself made up of three books. I may be wrong, but the cycle seems to me to be a fictional account of the beginning of the modern period in history and the Enlightenment. Each of the three books in Quicksilver focuses on an aspect of the changes wrought in Western civilization at this time. “Quicksilver” focuses on natural philosophy and the scientific revolution, “King of the Vagabonds” is a story about the birth of modern commerce and business, and “Odalisque” is pure politics. It is in fact the story of revolution in all possible meanings of that word – political, social, and scientific. Daniel Waterhouse describes it best in this contrast of revolution with rebellion:
No, rebellion is what the Duke of Monmouth did, it is a petty disturbance, an aberration, predestined to fail. Revolution is like the wheeling of stars round the pole. It is driven by unseen powers, it is inexorable, it moves all things at once, and men of discrimination may understand it, predict it, benefit from it. – p. 810
In Odalisque, there is much political intrigue. Daniel Waterhouse serves in an intimate capacity in the court of James II but works to undermine his reign. Meanwhile, Eliza serves as a spy at Versailles for William of Orange. Together they help bring about the Glorious Revolution but not without much personal cost.
It was nice to have Daniel Waterhouse and Eliza in the same book. They even meet although in a somewhat anticlimactic manner for the reader who has been following their stories for hundreds of pages. Sadly Jack Shaftoe does not appear in this book although his brother Bob plays a crucial role.
My favorite parts of this book involve historical characters, and while Stephenson probably made these things up, I like to think they are rooted in historical fact. The first is that William of Orange enjoyed sand-surfing along the beach, and was even ambushed while doing it. The second is when the fleeing James II, unrecognized by the general populace, gets beaten up in a tavern.
Now I’m a third of the way through The Baroque Cycle. I’m enjoying the reading immensely and look forward to the next volume.