Book Review: “The System of the World”by Neal Stephenson (Book 8 of the Baroque Cycle)

The Baroque Cycle comes to an end in the third book of the third volume (8th overall for those who are counting), The System of the World (2004) by Neal Stephenson which is also entitled “The System of the World”.  The major world events underlying the previous book pretty came to a conclusion with the Hanoverian succession at the end of “Currency.”  The final book instead focuses on the more personal stories of Stephenson’s main characters.  Will Jack Shaftoe escape the noose of Jack Ketch?  Will Newton and Leibniz end their quarrel?  What will become of Daniel Waterhouse’s many schemes in science and politics?  What will happen at the Trial of the Pyx?  Stephenson answers all of these questions in his entertaining and informative style with many tangents, including a duel with cannon.

I must read these books again.


Book Review: “Currency” by Neal Stephenson (Book 7 of the Baroque Cycle)

The seventh book of the Baroque Cycle and the the second part of the third volume The System of the World (2004) by Neal Stephenson is “Currency.”  Continuing where “Solomon’s Gold” left off, Daniel Waterhouse, Isaac Newton and other members of his philosophical club attempt to track down Jack Shaftoe for his counterfeiting crimes and tampering with the Pyx.  Meanwhile Eliza aids Princess Caroline of the Hanovers as her life is threatened amid the scheming over the successor to Queen Anne.  It all comes to a head as warring militias gather in London and the Whigs and Tories face off.

The Baroque Cycle gets better as it goes along and builds on past introduction of themes, characters and ideas.  I admit I’m guilty on not earlier paying enough attention to “minor” characters like Ravenscar and Bolingbroke whose significance becomes prominent in this episode.  Despite that this is another excellent novel of political intrigue, history, and humor.

I look forward to reading the final book, but also feel a bit sad that it will come to an end.


Book Review: “Solomon’s Gold” by Neal Stephenson (Book 6 of the Baroque Cycle)

Volume III of the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson, The System of the World (2004), begins with Book Six “Solomon’s Gold.”  This book picks up where the very first book, Quicksilver, left off with Daniel Waterhouse returning to England.  Waterhouse immediately finds himself in the midst of intrigue including attempted assasinations by an Infernal Device, counterfeit coinage, and various missions for Leibniz, Duchess Sophia, and Isaac Newton.  All around him rumors swirl about Queen Anne’s succesor.  Will it be the Hanovers supported by the Whigs or the Jacobite restoration of the Stuarts?

While this is primarily Daniel Waterhouse’s story, the book ends with a cliffhanger as Jack Shaftoe, aka Jack the Coiner, attempts an audacious (and comical) heist at the Tower of London.  I like how Daniel Waterhouse comes into his own in this book.  He’s still plagued by doubts but shows resourcefulness and leadership.  In an interesting reflection on fear he wonders if everyone else is as afraid as him. This novel also really uses London as a character with Waterhouse visiting the various historic (and not-so-historic) haunts of the city.  The London map in the flyleaf is a vital part of this book and I enjoyed following Daniel around town.


Author Stephenson, Neal.
Title The system of the world / Neal Stephenson.
Publication Info. New York : William Morrow, c2004.
Edition 1st ed.
Description xv, 892 p. ; 25 cm.

Book Review: “The Juncto” by Neal Stephenson (Book 5 of the Baroque Cycle)

The Confusion (2004) by Neal Stephenson continues with Book 5 of The Baroque Cycle, “The Juncto.”  This book is all Eliza, with a good share of Bob Shaftoe, plus helpings of Daniel Waterhouse and Leibniz, sprinkled with the monarchy and aristocracy of late 17th-century Europe, both real and fiction.  At times the narrative of this book appears to be no more than a roundabout way of telling the history of banking, finance, numismatics, and cryptology.  Despite all this, “The Juncto” is much more lively, entertaining, and funny than it’s intertwined book “Bonanza.”  Of course, maybe if I read them together like I was supposed to I would not be making these comparisons.  And it would have made a whole lot more sense.

Next up: The System of the World.

The confusion / Neal Stephenson.
New York : Morrow, c2004.
815 p.: maps ; 25 cm.

Book Review: “Bonanza” by Neal Stephenson (Book 4 of the Baroque Cycle)

I’m continuing the Baroque Cycle with “Book 4: Bonanza” which is paired with “Book 5: Juncto” in The Confusion (2004) by Neal Stephenson. This shows how stubborn I am to read one book at a time since Bonanza is “confused” together with Juncto making for a lot of page flipping.

Bonanza is all Jack Shaftoe as he connives to escape slavery and make a fortune in gold in an around the world adventure.  Jack and his polyglot cabal of escaped galley slaves travel through Algiers, Egypt, India, the Phillipines, China, Mexico, and the mysterious land of Qwghlm over a dozen years.  Topics covered include global commerce, colonialism, religious conflict, the Inquisition, Jesuits, alchemy, piracy, shipbuilding, metallurgy, numismatics, vulgarity, and slapstick humor.

Despite the adventure, I didn’t feel as engaged with this book as the earlier ones.  It all seems to be leading somewhere –  with tangents – but I’m not enjoying the ride as much.  I should have read it mixed-up with Eliza’s book Juncto.  I’ll find out soon when I read that book in the coming weeks.

By the way, I have to give credit to Vermeer’s Hat for covering the Manilla trade which involved Chinese merchants living in the outskirts of that city and an annual sailing of a galleon from New Spain bearing silver bullion.  This was a good background for many of the events in Bonanza.

The confusion / Neal Stephenson.
New York : Morrow, c2004.
815 p.: maps ; 25 cm.

Book Review: Odalisque by Neal Stephenson (Book 3 of the Baroque Cycle)

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.

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.

Book Review: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson (book 1 of the Baroque Cycle)

I’ve begun reading The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.  In quote I found on Wikipedia, Stephenson describes the Baroque Cycle thusly:

“Why Baroque? Because it is set in the Baroque, and it is baroque. Why Cycle? Because I am trying to avoid the T-word (“trilogy”). In my mind this work is something like 7 or 8 connected novels. These have been lumped together into three volumes because it is more convenient from a publishing standpoint, but they could just as well have been put all together in a single immense volume or separated into 7 or 8 separate volumes. So to slap the word “trilogy” on it would be to saddle it with a designation that is essentially bogus. Having said that, I know everyone’s going to call it a trilogy anyway. “

I figure with the author’s intentions so clear that it will be okay for me to read and review each book individually rather than laboring through the entire volume at once.  Not that there’s much labor involved in Quicksilver (2003) which is a joy to read.  Ostensibly a science fiction novel, the first book of the first volume (which share the same name) is more of literary journey through the scientific and political thought of early modern Europe.  The protagonist of novel is the somewhat Forrest Gump-like character Daniel Waterhouse who seems to interact with all the great thinkers of the time (and at one point he even is responsible for naming the city of New York).  The son of the charismatic Dissenter Drake Waterhouse, Daniel grows conflicted as he’s drawn to natural philosophy especially due to his friendship with Isaac Newton at Cambridge University.

The book begins with the arrival of the mysterious alchemist Enoch Root (the one clear sci-fi/fantasy element) in Boston in 1713.  Enoch is there to convince Daniel to return to England to help resolve a controversy.  The chapters then alternate between Daniel’s voyage and flashbacks to his coming of age.  The trip home is rough as Daniel’s ship encounters Edward Teach and numerous pirate ships, and the captain of Daniel’s ship tries increasingly comical ways of evading them (such as disguising Daniel as the captain).

Daniel’s life growing up is tougher still.  From his studies at Cambridge where he meets the strange genius Isaac Newton and becomes his assistant.  Daniel survives the plague of 1665 and the London fire of 1666 (which kills the obstinate Drake).  He joins the Royal Society and rubs shoulders with the likes of Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, Henry Oldenburg and Samuel Pepys and participates in many scientific experiments. As Daniel is increasingly drawn into the intrigue of English society constantly at war and ready to turn against itself.  He discovers that his heritage from a Dissenting family and his experience in natural philosophy put him in a unique position and as the book ends he is beginning to play that part.

That’s a short summary that does injustice to a lengthy book in a longer volume.  Quicksilver isn’t about the plot though as it deviates into the joy of discovery, political intrigue (gossip?), satire, and stories of historical events from a new perspective.  It’s a great book, and I look forward to reading the other 7.