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Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson - Review

Quicksilver - Neal Stephenson

The first volume of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (3 volumes series), Quicksilver is divided into three books. It took me FAR too long to read this book... in the span that I was reading this, I read I also read 19 Star Wars books... but I made it through eventually Razz

Stephenson is an interesting author; he uses a lot of detail and mildly complex ideas, but presents it all in a very readable format; not as dry as, say, Tolkien. Quicksilver runs with this concept, delving into the areas of the politics of late 1600s England/Europe, science and alchemy, presenting the sometimes confusing interplay of the three fairly clearly.

The first book tells the tale of Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan and natural philosopher, who is summoned from his home in Massachusetts back to England to help resolve conflict on the origin of calculus being attributed to both Newton and Leibniz. It takes part in the normal sort of temporal back and forth interplay between his current voyage back to England and the various events in his history that brought him to his current situation. A fair number of historic natural philosophers (scientists) important to the formation of modern sciences and the formation of the Royal Society (Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge) are introduced and a glimpse into the social hurtles faced by those in the sciences faced in the time are revealed, as well as the internal and external intrigues/politicking involved in so many aspects of life. This section of the book has a certain amount of dryness to it, but it's not hard to work through, and provides the backdrop and context for the rest of the book.

The second book shifts focus and introduces the character Jack Shaftoe, an English vagabond traveling Europe seeking his fortune. Of course, Jack is faced with no end of problems for his efforts, but does find a former harem girl, Eliza. The two of them work together, combining their wits and various talents across Europe until they're each embroiled into their own schemes; Jack goes off on to wild adventures, becoming the inspiration of great tales, while Eliza works her way into great political and financial intriques of the Dutch, French and English nobility.

The third book goes back to Daniel's history and reveals how he, Jack and Eliza's stories interweave. The book takes on a more politic angle, following the events of the English Court, the Dutch and the French, leading up to the Revolution of 1688, ending shortly after the revolution and Daniel's choice to leave England for Massachusetts.

As with Stephenson's other works, Quicksilver is a tangled mess of several plotlines and technicality, but he leads you through the snare with a certain grace. While I read the book bits at a time over about a year, I tend to be able to compartmentalize books relatively well, taking them in in a sort of episodic fashion... if you don't have a good memory for details, I'd suggest reading it in as short a period as possible, as you'll definitely forget important details otherwise... it's easy to get lost in. It's not as gripping as, say, Diamond Age, but it's compelling in its own right. I look forward to acquiring the rest of the series to see just where things are going to go.
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