2004-08-30 · in Books, Baroque Cycle · 374 words

Monsieur Shaftoe, this ballroom does not seem to agree with you. I do believe you should not be invited back, the King was able to remark, a bit sourly, before they were engulfed in courtiers with drawn swords.

The second (or, if you count "Cryptonomicon", third) instalment in Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle. We follow the further convoluted adventures of Jack Shaftoe and Eliza de la Zeur from 1689-1702. As Stephenson points out in an abbreviated foreword, the book is structured as two interleaved novels, one ("Bonanza") following Jack and the other ("Juncto") Eliza; they influence each other throughout, and finally intersect at the end. This is an imposing 815-page hardback book; it took me a bit over a month to read (albeit in small chunks).

Jack's story circumnavigates the globe as his group of Vagabond comrades carry out a series of thefts, deceptions and honest trades in the name of profit. Eliza's merely skips back and forth around Europe a bit, exploring how the world's nascent financial system works, but in some ways it's more complex than Jack's. Some of the major characters from the previous book — particularly Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton — get decidedly short shrift here, but the set of new characters in Jack's band make up for this, and I'd hope that Daniel at least will be back for the third book.

I found having Wikipedia to hand useful while reading; Stephenson's science is both accurate and interesting (the bit on wootz steel, for example), and many of his characters and events are based loosely on historical fact, so this is very much a book to read around as well as through. Stephenson's Metaweb site provides useful annotations specific to this series, although it's probably best avoided until you've finished the book.

Uncharacteristically for Stephenson, this book actually has a decent ending; while it's clearly leaving room for the events of the third book, it ties up most of the loose ends from this one. In general, this felt more polished than "Quicksilver"; I don't think it'd stand as well on its own as, say, "Cryptonomicon" does, but it's a worthy continuation of the series.

A long but entertaining read — recommended, and I'm looking forward to the next one.