Was the 17th century Europe’s most interesting historical period? I’d never thought of it that way before, but after reading Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver – which combines Quicksilver, King of the Vagabonds, and Odalisque into one massive tome – I think the century might be on to something.
The first third of the novel, entitled (and released as) Quicksilver, follows Daniel Waterhouse, a young man who journeys to London and discovers the birth of the Royal Society, a collection of natural philosophers doing their best to organize a scientific revolution in London. This premise is an important one for Stephenson as it allows the author time to expound upon the birth of modern science, the nature of fleas, and a rivalry between two of Europe’s greatest thinkers: Gottfried Leibniz and Isaac Newton. The rivalry here begins when both Leibniz and Newton claim to have invented calculus. Though the subject lends itself to infodumps, which some will find trying, I enjoyed the personality that Stephenson puts into historical figures. There’s more to them than portraits and bullet points in textbooks.
Some readers will find that Stephenson spends too much time expounding and not enough time adventuring in the first third of the novel, an imbalance that he immediately corrects in the second section of the novel, King of the Vagabonds. King of the Vagabonds follows Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe as he journeys, vagabond style, from the Battle of Vienna to Amsterdam to France. Jack is Stephenson’s swashbuckling, joke cracking, blockbuster anti-hero. He’s not afraid to get into a sword fight and it would take little prodding to convince him to tick off the King of France.
Jack is also in love with Eliza, a young woman he rescues from a harem. Eliza happens to be fluent in just about every European language, and she has a keen mind for mathematics and business. It does not take long for her to wind up in Amsterdam, where Stephenson introduces the stock exchange, astronomers, and the emerging tension between the Sun King, Louis XIV, and William of Orange. Before long, Eliza winds up in the middle of the shadowy side of Baroque politics, but she fortunately figures out a way to leverage her mathematical skills and friends to her advantage. Eliza and Daniel are given the majority of the final third section of the book, Odalisque.
It would be difficult to understate how ambitious a book Quicksilver is. I can only imagine how much time Stephenson devoted to researching Quicksilver, but if I were forced to make an estimate I would start with the amount of time I spent reading about it while reading Quicksilver and then multiply. Suffice it to say that I was grateful that I started reading this series after Wikipedia or else I would have had to sign out a set of encyclopedias from the library.
Quicksilver can be an intimidating read because of its length and its steep learning curve. Further, it is just the first novel in the BAROQUE CYCLE, meaning that it asks the reader to commit to thousands of pages of reading. Stephenson does not do his readers many favors in terms of plot either. The action can be uneven and unpredictable. However, by the time I’d finished this brick, I was determined to continue. Stephenson fans should enjoy this novel, but it helps to have an interest in history, science, and finance.