Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver, part one of The Baroque Cycle, runs a scant 927 pages. Part 2, The Confusion is already available, so you can take both with you to the beach or cottage!
Judging from Quicksilver, these books, even more than Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, form a coherent whole. My review must be read with the understanding that nearly 2000 pages remain, and the story, at present, is incomplete.
Original Publication Date: 2003
During the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, stuff happens.
Apart from being the first part of a larger book, Quicksilver itself divides into three books: “Quicksilver,” “King of the Vagabonds,” and “Odalisque.” “Quicksilver” concerns Daniel Waterhouse and other characters’ lives in the mid to late 1600s and again in the 1700s. Enoch Root– that’s the same Enoch Root who appears alive centuries later in Cryptonomicon— arrives in 1713 to take Waterhouse back to Europe, where Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz are feuding. “King of the Vagabonds” tells the picaresque adventures of Halfcock Jack and Eliza. “Odalisque” tells of the role Eliza, Waterhouse, and others played in key events of European history as the Enlightenment dawned, democracy stumbled forward, and the scientific method developed.
Halfcock Jack’s hallucinations in “King of the Vagabonds,” and most of that chapter’s balancing of certain picaresque elements with something like reality.
Both Eliza and Waterhouse’s adventures in “Odalisque” read well.
The first part, “Quicksilver,” isn’t terribly interesting, and the significance of many events remains unclear. While future volumes will likely clarify matters, I still finished the first 335 pages with the clear sense that I could have read a lot less and arrived comfortably at the same point in the plot. These chapters also indicate that Daniel Waterhouse lives to an advanced age, which fact diminishes somewhat the suspense surrounding his threatened death in “Odalisque,” which takes place years earlier.
Originality: 4/6 Various interconnected strands of history weave together to bring about a new era. The heroes include a mathematically-inclined outsider named Waterhouse, pulp- heroesque characters named Shaftoe, and a fantasy figure of a woman. The tiny, fictional island of Qwghlm plays a role. Encryption plays a role. Real-life historical figures appear, while the mysterious Enoch Root intervenes, almost as though he has a mission to see history turn out a certain way. This novel, in short, reads like Crytonomicon, time-warped back a few centuries and shorn of much (though by no means all) of its wit.
Story: 4/6 Uh…. Story. Right. In fact, the plots of “King of the Vagabond” and “Odalisque” maintained my interest, despite the fact that aspects of them do not resolve. It’s difficult to get around the absence of a clear overall plot and, given the novel’s length, this will deter some readers.
Characterization: 4/6 Characterization is inconsistent, which is to be expected when a novel features a hundred or so characters. Eliza and Waterhouse work very well (despite some rather far-fetched aspects of Eliza’s character), which is one reason why “Odalisque” works best of the three parts.
Imagery: 6/6 Stephenson describes the Europe of the 1600s like a fantasy writer describing an imaginary world. Moments at London Bridge and in Versailles remain with me. He does reveal other plot points through at times less-evocative letters, but these suit the time, when the epistolary novel was emerging.
Emotional Response: 4/6 Some people have suggested that the response to certain chapters would be high indeed if “boredom” is to be counted as an emotional response, but the best moments of this book work very well. Be prepared for some unpleasant subject matter. People were often used most brutally in the past, and fictional animals were harmed during the writing of this novel.
Editing: 3/6. I really believe that, after reading the next two volumes, I will still feel that much could have been edited, and would improve the story. Stephenson’s attempts to blend 17th-century subject matter with more contemporary language and, on occasion, references, does not always work. I will crank up the scores on Parts 2 and 3 if I’m proven wrong.
Overall Score: 4/6. How does one give an overall score on 1/3 of a book?
In total, Quicksilver receives 29/42