The book being reviewed here is one of three books which are from the Baroque Cycle Trilogy by Neal Stephenson. Since there does not yet appear to be one title under which I can post my review, I have triplicated this review and placed the same review under all three titles. The sequence is Quicksilver, The Confusion, and the System of the World.
I read voraciously of both fiction, non-fiction and that in-between category of historic fiction in which one can learn considerably about the age but still enjoy the plot of an ideal narrative, or, in the case of the Baroque Cycle, an intertwining of several narratives. In the last say, three years, I have read literally hundreds of books and I can unequivocally name the three most influential works (apart from "Postcards of Nursing," the one I wrote myself, of course,) during that period. They are the 20 Aubrey/Maturin historic novels of Patrick O'Brian, "Shantaram," by Gregory David Roberts, and the three books in the Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson.
I find it hard to critique Stephenson's work. His writing and research genius is so far beyond my poor abilities that if I come across an aspect of his writing which gives me pause, I have to look to my own deficiencies rather than his. But nowhere did I find the book to be condescending. And the subtle (and not so subtle) humor was superb.
And the characters: Ah the characters. When I had finished the books, I felt I *knew* Isaac Newton, Leibniz, Hooke, and Wren. Half-Cocked Jack and Dappa were real to me. Eliza lived and breathed.
Also, I began to discover that I was beginning to understand the international monetary system and the trappings of power surrounding it. I began to appreciate the conventions of letter-writing, the mind set when years might go by between a correspondence and its reply. I felt I understood something of the tangled tapestries of royal affairs in the 18th century. I was transported. Utterly. Words fail me.
Each book in the trilogy was better written than its predecessor, and the first one was superb. When I was reading O'Brian's novels, and was on say, novel #5 in the series, I was in heaven, knowing that I had 15 and a half (so to speak) more novels to go. When I was finally finished with 20, I started grasping at straws. I went to see the movie which, to my delight, showed me something of the ship HMS Surprise, but to my extreme disappointment, miscast Maturin so badly that it robbed the film of its portrayal of one of the most complex characters in literature. I read the unfinished #21. Not enough. It was only when I came across Quicksilver that I began to let go of the O'Brian characters and came to "invest" in Stephenson's.
And yet, by the time I was halfway through the "System of the World," the final of the three books, I began anticipatory grieving. I knew I might not see these folks again in such a personal light. They had become my friends. The fact that I had already read Cryptonomicon, a work by Stephenson based in part on one of the descendants of Dr. Waterhouse, was not a consolation. I miss those folks. I will probably read the books again in a year or two, but until then, since O'Brian is dead, and since probably Roberts will not top his first novel, I will have to wait for another of Stephenson's books. By the way, and this is not a spoiler, the resolution of the Baroque Cycle is thoroughly complete and intensely satisfying. It's just too bad it's over.