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Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle

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Neal Stephenson has managed to create a masterpiece in The Baroque Cycle. He has written a 3000 page 3 volume novel that is enthralling throughout the 70 year epic journey. He takes three fictional main characters, Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe and Eliza Duchess of Arcachon and Qwghlm, and intertwines them with historical people, places and events. People, such as Sir Isaac Newton, William and Mary of Orange, Russian Tsar Peter Romanov (aka Peter the Great), Sir Christopher Wren, the Family of Hanover (who is still ruling England to this day) and of course King Louis XIV all have dealings with the three main characters. Their travels take the reader on a historic trip of the world in the 17th century and how those events make the world what we know today.

The first volume of Stephenson's saga is Quicksilver. It starts out as Daniel Waterhouse is summoned by the future Princess of Wales to leave his home in Boston and return to England to settle a dispute between his college roommate Sir Isaac Newton and his friend Baron Liebnez. This dispute has been raging for 30 years between these two philosophers and Daniel is deemed as the only one who has any hope of bringing them together. This Atlantic voyage prompts Daniel to remiss upon his previous 70 years as to what has brought him to this point in time. In book two of the first volume, the reader is introduced to the vagabond Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, who was kidnapped off the beach of her home Qwghlm and sold into slavery to become a love slave to an Arab sheik. Jack of course heroically rescues her as she is about to be put to death and they travel through out Europe. Eliza quickly learns how to work the markets in Amsterdam through her charm and beauty and begins building her wealth. Jack, who is baffled by this whole system of trading information, is soon out down by her and decides he has to go off and earn his wealth so that he does not have to be dependent upon her. So at the end of the book Jack is going off to enter the slave trade (much to Eliza's chagrin) and make his fortune to impress Eliza.

The second volume, Confusion, opens up with Jack as a slave in the exact place that he was going to start trading. He has been miraculously cured from syphilitic dementia and plots with his cabal to buy their way to freedom through piracy. In the course of about the next 10 years, he manages to gain and lose about 3 fortunes, become king and sail around the world. Eliza becomes a spy for William of Orange, becomes a courtier to Louis XIV and marries the son of the slave trader that kidnapped her in the first place. Daniel Waterhouse becomes a key figure in James II court and is involved in getting William and Mary of Orange into power while doing work in the area of Natural Philosophy and fighting against Alchemy.

The System of the World is the final piece that ties together the lives of Daniel Waterhouse, Eliza Duchess of Arcachon and Qwghlm, and Jack Shaftoe King of the Vagabonds. Jack has been persuaded, by the King of France, to undermine the English money system which is regulated by Isaac Newton and will ensure England's prosperity. Daniel Waterhouse has returned to England at the request of the future Princess of Wales and Eliza is continuing to direct anti-slavery movements. Of course all of these worlds collide, as the standardizing of money is the key to the end of slavery, the industrial revolution and England's future as a world power.

Stephenson combines extensive history and science into an adventure that spans the entire globe. Jack is ever getting himself and others out of death defying adventures. Eliza manages to arrange things so she is spying for the King of France and England at the same time. And Daniel, though ever trying to stay out of trouble, is in the midst of a philosophic battle that threatens to destroy him. The series is never short of adventure or intrigue and certainly enlightens the reader of the events, thoughts and feelings of the time. I would recommended the entire series as a very enjoyable, entertaining read.

Created by nikic
Last modified 2005-01-21 12:07 PM
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