“Quicksilver” by Neal Stephenson

I did it! I finished Quicksilver, volume 1 of Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy as part of my summer reading project. Was it worth a month of my time? You betcha, as we Minnesotans sometimes say. I know a few of you gave it a try; anyone still reading besides me and G. Grod?

The big book is divided into three smaller ones. Book 1 is Quicksilver, and uses character Daniel Waterhouse to introduce us to historical figures like Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke. Waterhouse is the son of a Puritan, but is not so fervent as his father was, which got that man blown up by Charles II. Book 1 focuses on alchemy and the rise of “science” which was at that time referred to as Natural Philosophy. It also does a good job of portraying the blurry line between science and religion/philosophy, and the frequent connection between math genius and madness.

Book 2, King of the Vagabonds, introduces Jack Shaftoe, a mercenary, and Eliza, a harem girl Jack rescues from beneath Vienna during a military siege. They proceed across Europe trying to make their fortune, meeting historical figures like Leibniz and William of Orange, and generally getting into a lot of trouble while doing so.

Book 3, Odalisque (which means Turkish harem slave, which Eliza was), brings Daniel and Eliza together, and introduces Bob, Jack’s more respectable brother. Natural philosophy, politics and finance collide as they usher in huge changes.

The hugeness of the book, in both size and subject, strangely makes me want to be pithy in describing it. It’s speculative historical fiction, much like Stephenson’s Cryptonomicon, the research for which spawned the idea for this series. If you like Stephenson’s work, like Snow Crash and Diamond Age, this will be in your wheelhouse. I found it a fun AND educational, if wrist-straining, summer read.

I’m going to take a little break, then move on to Volume 2, The Confusion, which I hope isn’t truth in advertising.

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