The Confusion: Best novel in THE BAROQUE CYCLE

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Confusion by Neal StephensonThe Confusion by Neal Stephenson

If Quicksilver, the first book in Neal Stephenson’s BAROQUE CYCLE, focused on events in England and continental Europe during the 17th century, The Confusion is Stephenson taking the time to provide a more global context. Or half of it is. The Confusion combines two novels from the cycle, The Juncto and Bonanza. The Juncto follows Eliza’s exploits in Europe, while everyone’s favorite vagabond, Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe, stars in Bonanza.

Eliza’s son has been kidnapped by Lothar von Hacklheber, and she employs every means at her disposal to ruin him. Eliza is the brains of this novel, and she manipulates the nobility, cryptographers, and philosophers to regain her son. Eliza is ridiculously smart. Though her basic problem – the kidnapping of her son – invites universal sympathy from readers, her response might strike some readers as a little too calculated for belief. However, it is Eliza’s response that allows Stephenson to show off Eliza’s great talents while also introducing us to the birth of the Bank of England. I found the approach efficient and enjoyable.

Nevertheless, I preferred Jack’s tale. Jack emerges from madness brought on by syphilis at the start of his story. He now works as a galley slave for pirates. For many people, this was the end of their life’s story, but fortunately it’s just the beginning of Jack’s. Eliza is given time to hobnob with the nobility, which can be interesting, but I was particularly impressed with the way that Stephenson introduced the “common people” into his cycle of stories through Jack.

I also loved that neither the reader nor the characters around Jack are able to tell how fully he has recovered from his madness. Still, his schemes generally work and before long he and his fellow conspirators are chasing Solomon’s Gold around the planet. What a fantastic premise for someone with Stephenson’s attention to detail and his enthusiasm for digression.

Like Quicksilver before it, The Confusion should probably be read near an encyclopedia or reference book. There is any number of historical figures that show up, including Jean Bart, Isaac Newton, and Louis XIV. Daniel Waterhouse, Stephenson’s (invented) hero in Quicksilver, has a reduced role here, which I at first felt worked against The Confusion. Oddly, I found that I missed the scientists.

However, I gave The Confusion its due, and by the time I’d finished reading it, I was satisfied. With The Confusion, Stephenson takes on a daunting subject. At no point did I feel that he had edited out something that could have been kept in, though some readers will likely feel that he has kept in things that could have been edited out. Given its length, The Confusion could be seen as an indulgent novel, but I found that Stephenson did a better job of pacing than he had in Quicksilver. Believe it or not, I finished this behemoth quickly, and I missed it when I had finished.

So I recommend The Confusion. Readers will have to make it through Quicksilver before they can get to it, but it remains my favorite entry in THE BAROQUE CYCLE.

The Baroque Cycle — (2003-2004) The first three novels, (1. Quicksilver 2. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque) are also available in an omnibus edition titled Quicksilver. Publisher: Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is here. A monumental literary feat that follows the author’s critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller Cryptonomicon, it is history, adventure, science, truth, invention, sex, absurdity, piracy, madness, death, and alchemy. It sweeps across continents and decades with the power of a roaring tornado, upending kings, armies, religious beliefs, and all expectations. It is the story of Daniel Waterhouse, fearless thinker and conflicted Puritan, pursuing knowledge in the company of the greatest minds of Baroque-era Europe, in a chaotic world where reason wars with the bloody ambitions of the mighty, and where catastrophe, natural or otherwise, can alter the political landscape overnight. It is a chronicle of the breathtaking exploits of “Half-Cocked Jack” Shaftoe — London street urchin turned swashbuckling adventurer and legendary King of the Vagabonds — risking life and limb for fortune and love while slowly maddening from the pox… and Eliza, rescued by Jack from a Turkish harem to become spy, confidante, and pawn of royals in order to reinvent a contentious continent through the newborn power of finance. A gloriously rich, entertaining, and endlessly inventive novel that brings a remarkable age and its momentous events to vivid life — a historical epic populated by the likes of Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Benjamin Franklin, and King Louis XIV — Quicksilver is an extraordinary achievement from one of the most original and important literary talents of our time. And it’s just the beginning…

Neal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the WorldNeal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the WorldNeal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the WorldNeal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the WorldNeal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the World


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RYAN SKARDAL, on our staff from September 2010 to November 2018, is an English teacher who reads widely but always makes time for SFF.

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One comment

  1. Sarah /

    I wish you hadn’t done this. I don’t have time to read Stephenson right now, and these reviews are making me want to put Quicksilver on the top of the books to be read pile. Who needs sleep anyhow. Thanks Ryan.

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