George V. Reilly

Review: Quicksilver

Title: Quick­sil­ver: The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1
Author: Neal Stephenson
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Publisher: William Morrow
Copyright: 2003
Pages: 927
Keywords: historical fiction
Reading period: 10 December 2006–4 January, 2007

The first of three equally long volumes of historical fiction by Neal Stephenson, who is better known for his spec­u­la­tive fiction. This is a prequel of sorts to Crypto­nom­i­con, featuring the distant ancestors of the Waterhouse and Shaftoe characters.

Quick­sil­ver primarily takes place in late 17th century Europe, the baroque era where giants such as Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, and Huygens brought about a new un­der­stand­ing of the world. Daniel Waterhouse, a Puritan scholar, moves among them, knowing that he is not a good enough Natural Philoso­pher to be their equal, while he also moves through the courts of King Charles II and James II. Jack Shaftoe, who styles himself the King of the Vagabonds, moves in far less reputable circles. The two men do not meet, but they are both tied to the remarkable Eliza, who rises from being a Turkish harem slave to becoming both a French countess and a Dutch duchess, by working as a double agent for the Dutch against the French.

It’s an engaging tale, conveying a good deal of the in­tel­lec­tu­al and political ferment of the times. However, both Daniel and Eliza seem anachro­nis­tic to me, like characters trans­plant­ed from the twentieth century. Stephenson works in a variety of styles ranging from straight narrative, to short plays, to long epis­to­la­to­ry chapters. He throws in other anachro­nis­tic touches too, such as Leibniz referring to the growing incidence of ‘canal rage’ amongst the gondoliers of Venice.

At 900 pages, it’s far too long. Stephen­son’s editor should have reined him in. I would have enjoyed it more at half the length.

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