Review: Quicksilver by Neal Stephenson

2017: 10
3.5 of 5 stars
First published September 2003

It took me nearly four months to finish Quicksilver which is a book the size of a doorstop. In actual fact, it’s three books. It’s part of the Baroque Cycle trilogy but each of the three books in the trilogy contains three books, so in effect, it’s a nonilogy. Is that even a word? Nine books in the series, with three in each volume makes for very big, chunky books. This is a vast, historical epic taking place from the mid-ish 17th century in the years leading up to the Restoration of Charles II to just after the turn of the 18th century.

I despaired several times of ever getting through the first volume. It was very long and long-winded at times but the stories had enough in them to keep me interested enough to keep plodding on though it was an effort. I was heartened, however, when I realized that though the volume was well over 1000 pages, a full 25% of it was character lists and acknowledgements, etc. I realized I was much further along in the book as far as the story goes than I thought which helped me see it to the end.

The first book of the three volume set is Quicksilver and focuses on Puritan Daniel Waterstone who was a peer of Isaac Newton and many of the other alchemists-turned-natural-philosophers. The 18th century was an important era for the development of science and mathematics and Daniel is in the thick of it. The book starts with Daniel in the New World, living near Boston and Cambridge and he is persuaded to return to England to defend Newton in a debate over the origins of calculus against Dr. Leibniz who also developed a calculus at the same time as Newton. Who did it first? On the ship, Daniel writes his memoirs and we are led back into his story, his school days with Newton, the Restoration, the Great Fire of London, the establishment of the Royal Society and experiments that sometimes go badly wrong. In the “present day” on the ship, there are also pirates threatening to attack, a common occurrence.

The second book changes scene completely and we meet pox ridden “Half Cocked” (quite literally) Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds (which is also the name of the book) and Eliza whom he rescued from a Turkish hareem. While Jack looks for love and fortune, the pragmatic Eliza becomes a financial adviser and spy as they make their way through the Paris of Louis XIV, Versailles, and the Duchy of Orange where Prince William has a new British bride, Princess Mary Stuart. This book is a real romp through Europe and historical events and wars, with both Jack and Eliza getting into and out of scrapes galore, together and apart.

The third book, Odalisque, takes us back to England in the lead up to the deposing of James II and crowning of William and Mary in 1688. We hear more of Daniel’s story and more of Eliza’s, often through her encrypted correspondence. Eliza is playing a dangerous game and is spying for both sides, the French and the Dutch Prince William. Daniel spends his time in the court of James II, watching as it all falls apart for the king. He seems to be more of an observer in this book rather than a participant. Daniel isn’t really that much of an interesting character, he is more like the Greek chorus, observing and commenting whereas Eliza is engaging and fun and she’s definitely a survivor, out of either sharp instincts or sheer luck, or a combination of the two!

While Stephenson does go on a bit much and the descriptions could be edited, it does paint a rather vivid world. The extensive length of the book is not for the faint hearted, though I do believe you can also get hold of the three books individually which would make reading it a bit easier. I liked enough of it to keep going through the drawn out bits but having said that, I don’t think I’ll pursue the other 6 books/2 volumes which continue the story, at least not for awhile.

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