The Barnes & Noble Review
The Confusion, the shelf-bending sequel to Neal Stephenson's equally meaty Quicksilver, continues his epic Baroque Cycle by following a remarkable cast of late-17th-century characters that includes spies, vagabonds, and historical figures like Sir Isaac Newton and German mathematician Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz.
The two primary story lines revolve around Jack Shaftoe, the infamous King of the Vagabonds, and Eliza, a seductive spy who is both puppet-master and pawn to powerful alchemists, cryptographers, and kings. The novel begins with Jack a half-insane, pox-infected galley slave aboard a pirate ship. He and a cabal of ten ingenious slaves engineer a wild plot to win their freedom -- and untold fortunes. The complicated scheme -- which involves stealing an enormous cache of silver bound for Spain -- succeeds beyond their wildest dreams; but instead of thieving a hoard of silver, the cabal now possesses gold: "not just any gold, but gold imbued with miraculous -- even divine -- qualities."
Meanwhile, Eliza -- a former slave -- finds herself penniless once again in France and must use intellect and cunning to save herself and her children from certain death. Her primary objective is to seek vengeance on the man who forced her into slavery, but fate intervenes at the most inopportune moment…
With the swashbuckling action and the quixotic ambiance of Alexandre Dumas classics such as The Three Musketeers and The Count of Monte Cristo, the page-turning intrigue of Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, and a cast of characters to rival any Harry Turtledove epic, Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is destined to rank among the most ambitious historical sagas ever written. Wildly engaging, richly described and delectably complex, The Confusion is a storytelling masterwork.
Paul Goat Allen
The New York Times
With barely time to exhale, Stephenson has returned with Volume 2 of the Baroque Cycle, The Confusion, and it is every bit as rollicking and overstuffed as its predecessor … The Baroque Cycle is like the Nerf-style jousts one sometimes passes on campus quads: creatively anachronistic, oddly unembarrassed and emphatically not for everyone. But it's also brimming with a hail-fellow-well-met good cheer, at the heart of which lies a genuinely fun pirate romance.
The title of Stephenson's vast, splendid and absorbing sequel to Quicksilver (2003) suggests the state of mind that even devoted fans may face on occasion as they follow the glorious and exceedingly complex parallel stories of Jack Shaftoe, amiable criminal mastermind, and Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, courageous secret agent and former prisoner in a Turkish harem. In 1689, Jack recovers his memory in Algiers, evades galley slavery and joins a quest for the lost treasure of a Spanish pirate named Carlos Olancho Macho y Macho. This leads to adventures at sea worthy of Patrick O'Brian, and hairbreadth escapes from the jaws of the Inquisition. Meanwhile, Eliza is captured by the historical (and distinguished) French privateer Jean Bart while trying to escape to England with her baby. She must then navigate the intrigues of the court of Louis XIV, which are less lethal than those of the Inquisition by a small margin, but still make for uneasy sleep for a friendless female spy. Her correspondence with such scientific minds as Wilhelm Leibniz helps propel the saga's chronicling of the roots of modern science at a respectable clip. Of course, one can't call anything about the Baroque Cycle "brisk," but the richness of detail and language lending verisimilitude to the setting and depth to the characters should be reward enough for most readers. Agent, Liz Darhansoff at Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman Literary Agents. (One-day laydown Apr. 13) Forecast: The third volume of the trilogy, The System of the World, is due in September (and it may take readers till then to finish volume two). Though fatigue might winnow out a few fans, most should stay the course. Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
In this sequel to Quicksilver, Jack Shaftoe, who is recovering from partial memory loss, finds himself one of a group of ten galley slaves aboard a Turkish warship and, along with his oarmates, immerses himself in a daring plan to escape, steal a ship, and acquire a shipment of precious metals. In France, Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, continues her clandestine work as an agent for England but becomes trapped on the continent by both her enemies and her many suitors. Narrated in Stephenson's exuberant prose, the tales of Jack and Eliza intertwine with the great events and historical figures of the Baroque era, an age of tremendous change and innovation. Brimming with period detail and spiced with literate humor reminiscent of the works of John Barth, this prequel to Stephenson's sf thriller Cryptonomicon demonstrates his masterly storytelling. Highly recommended. [Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 12/03; the final volume, The System of the World, will be published in October 2004.-Ed.]-Jackie Cassada, Asheville-Buncombe Lib. Syst., NC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Stephenson's Baroque Cycle grows streamlined in a hefty but propulsive second volume. Building on the solid foundation that he's already laid (Quicksilver, 2003), Stephenson provides us here with what's actually two novels, interwoven with each other and carrying us forward from 1689 to 1702. In "The Juncto," we follow Eliza's ever-scheming efforts to keep her head attached to her neck while playing royal politics at Versailles, but "Bonanza" is the real treat, a rousing continuation of the adventures of the Vagabond King, the ever-stupid yet quite resourceful Jack Shaftoe. When we last left the luscious Eliza, she had nicely recovered from being rescued (by Jack) from an Ottoman harem, being named to French royalty (for services rendered). Now, she's not only trying to raise her three children, but also operates as a crafty spy, brokering a byzantine deal involving the minting of monies in London to pay the massed French-Irish army soon to cross the Channel-to take London. The Juncto itself, a learned group that includes Leibniz and Newton, pops in from time to time to debate alchemy, theology, and abstract financial theorems-sessions that, though fascinating, are blessedly shorter than in the prior volume. Meanwhile, Jack starts out as a Mediterranean galley slave, but it's obvious that the calling won't last. It isn't long before he and his impossibly diverse band of slaves (the motley band in ridiculously tough situations being a Stephenson trope) have stolen a boatload of gold and are on the run. A few rough patches aside, when the book is firing on all cylinders, as in a relentlessly funny running battle through the streets of Cairo, there's little else out there that could hope tomatch it. Packed with more derring-do than a dozen pirate films and with smarter, sparklier dialogue than a handful of Pulitzer winners, this is run-and-gun adventure fiction of the most literate kind.
“[T]he definitive historical-sci-fi-epic-pirate-comedy-punk-love story. No easy feat, that. A-.”
Read an Excerpt
The Confusion LTD
He was not merely awakened, but detonated out of an uncommonly long and repetitive dream. He could not remember any of the details of the dream now that it was over. But he had the idea that it had entailed much rowing and scraping, and little else; so he did not object to being roused. Even if he had been of a mind to object, he'd have had the good sense to hold his tongue, and keep his annoyance well-hid beneath a simpering merry-Vagabond façade. Because what was doing the waking, today, was the most tremendous damned noise he'd ever heard -- it was some godlike Force not to be yelled at or complained to, at least not right away.
Cannons were being fired. Never so many, and rarely so large, cannons. Whole batteries of siege-guns and coastal artillery discharging en masse, ranks of 'em ripple-firing along wall-tops. He rolled out from beneath the barnacle-covered hull of a beached ship, where he had apparently been taking an afternoon nap, and found himself pinned to the sand by a downblast of bleak sunlight. At this point a wise man, with experience in matters military, would have belly-crawled to some suitable enfilade. But the beach all round him was planted with hairy ankles and sandaled feet; he was the only one prone or supine.
Lying on his back, he squinted up through the damp, sand-caked hem of a man's garment: a loose robe of open-weave material that laved the wearer's body in a gold glow, so that he could look directly up into the blind eye of the man's penis -- which had been curiously modified. Inevitably, he lost this particular stare-down. He rolled back the other way, performing one and a half uphill revolutions, and clambered indignantly to his feet, forgetting about the curve of the hull and therefore barking his scalp on a phalanx of barnacles. Then he screamed as loud as he could, but no one heard him. He didn't even hear himself. He experimented with plugging his ears and screaming, but even then he heard naught but the sound of the cannons.
Time to take stock of matters -- to bring the situation in hand. The hull was blocking his view. Other than it, all he could see was a sparkling bay, and a stony break-water. He strode into the sea, watched curiously by the man with the mushroom-headed yard, and, once he was out knee-deep, turned around. What he saw then made it more or less obligatory to fall right on his arse.
This bay was spattered with bony islets, close to shore. Rising from one of them was a squat round fortress that (if he was any judge of matters architectural) had been built at grand expense by Spaniards in desperate fear of their lives. And apparently those fears had been well founded because the top of that fort was all fluttery with green banners bearing silver crescent moons. The fort had three tiers of guns on it (more correctly, the fort was three tiers of guns) and every one of 'em looked, and sounded, like a sixty-pounder, meaning that it flung a cannonball the size of a melon for several miles. This fort was mostly shrouded in powder-smoke, with long bolts of flame jabbing out here and there, giving it the appearance of a thunderstorm that had been rammed and tamped into a barrel.
A white stone breakwater connected this fort to the mainland, which, at first glance, impressed him as a sheer stone wall rising forty or feet from this narrow strip of muddy beach, and crowded with a great many more huge cannons, all being fired just as fast as they could be swabbed out and stuffed with powder.
Beyond the wall rose a white city. Being as he was at the base of a rather high wall, he wouldn't normally expect to be able to see anything on the opposite side thereof, save the odd cathedral-spire poking out above the battlements. But this city appeared to've been laboriously spackled onto the side of a precipitous mountain whose slopes rose directly from the high-tide mark. It looked a bit like a wedge of Paris tilted upwards by some tidy God who wanted to make all the shit finally run out of it. At the apex, where one would look for whatever crowbar or grapple the hypothetical God would've used to accomplish this prodigy, was, instead, another fortress -- this one of a queer Moorish design, surrounded with its own eight-sided wall that was, inevitably, a-bristle with even more colossal cannons, as well as mortars for heaving bombs out to sea. All of those were being fired, too -- as were all of the guns spraying from the several additional fortresses, bastions, and gun-platforms distributed around the city's walls.
During rare intervals between the crushing thuds of the sixty-pounders, he could hear peppery waves of pistol-and-musket-fire rolling around the place, and now (beginning to advert on smaller things) he saw a sort of smoky, crowded lawn growing out of the wall-tops -- save instead of grass-blades this lawn was made up of men. Some were dressed in black, and some in white, but most wore more colorful costumes: baggy white trousers belted with brilliantly hued swathes of silk, and brightly embroidered vests -- frequently, several such vests nested -- and turbans or red cylindrical hats. Most of those who were dressed after this fashion had a pistol in each hand and were firing them into the air or reloading.
The man with the outlandish johnson -- swarthy, with wavy black hair in a curious 'do, and a knit skullcap -- hitched up his robe, and sloshed out to see if he was all right. For he still had both hands clamped over the sides of his head, partly to stanch the bleeding of the barnacle-gashes, and partly to keep the sound from blowing the top of his skull out to sea. The Confusion LTD. Copyright © by Neal Stephenson. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.