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Newton's Cannon

Newton's Cannon

4.2 12
by J. Gregory Keyes, Greg Keyes, Gregory J. Keyes

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A dazzling quest whose outcome will raise humanity to unparalleled heights of glory—or ring down a curtain of endless night . . .

1681: When Sir Isaac Newton turns his restless mind to the ancient art of alchemy, he unleashes Philosopher's Mercury, a primal source of matter and a key to manipulating the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Now,


A dazzling quest whose outcome will raise humanity to unparalleled heights of glory—or ring down a curtain of endless night . . .

1681: When Sir Isaac Newton turns his restless mind to the ancient art of alchemy, he unleashes Philosopher's Mercury, a primal source of matter and a key to manipulating the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Now, as France and England battle for its control, Louis XIV calls for a new weapon—a mysterious device known only as Newton's Cannon.

Half a world away, a young apprentice named Benjamin Franklin stumbles across a dangerous secret. Pursued by a deadly enemy—half scientist, half sorcerer—Ben makes his fugitive way to England. Only Newton himself can help him now. But who will help Sir Isaac? For he was not the first to unleash the Philosopher's Mercury. Others were there before him. Creatures as scornful of science as they are of mankind. And burning to be rid of both . . .

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
—USA Today

"A NEW MYTH-MAKER, A NEW STAR OF THE FANTASY GENRE HAS ARRIVED. Like Ursula Le Guin in the '60s, John Varley in the '70s, and Orson Scott Card in the '80s, author J. Gregory Keyes may well be the leading fantasy writer of the 1990s."

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Enlightened science is transformed into blackest magic in the opening volume of Keyes's (The Waterborn) 18th-century alternative history, The Age of Unreason. Sir Isaac Newton turns alchemist to obtain Philosopher's Mercury, the key to cosmic end-of-the-world weaponry. Stolen by a philosopher-mage of France's King Louis XIV to use against the invading English, the hellish device threatens to obliterate London unless two unlikely young geniuses can defuse it. Alternating chapters trace the pair's discrete stories, as American icon Ben Franklin, here portrayed as a randy adolescent, and the toothsome Adrienne de Montchevreuil, Louis's latest mistress, separately wield fearsome theorems against supernatural forces manipulating humanity. Clearly enamored with the glories of Versailles, Keyes writes passages of swordplay and foreplay that fitfully flare into life, but the novel is ultimately foiled by muddy secondary characterizations and a finale that fizzles. (May)
VOYA - Mary Arnold
How intriguing and complicated matters become when science and magic work hand in hand is explored in this eighteenth-century alternate history science fantasy. Readers meet everyone from Sir Isaac Newton to Blackbeard the Pirate in a complex tale of philosophical debate, political intrigue, and occult influence around the time period usually termed the Age of Reason. A result of Newton's work, Philosopher's Mercury makes it possible to manipulate the four elements to unleash the potential for enormous "scientific" advances. In the British colonies, young apprentice printer Ben Franklin yearns for the chance to test his own ideas and match wits with the great minds of Europe. His early forays into alchemy result in disaster, however, and he flees for the continent pursued by demonical forces, convinced that he has inadvertently given England's enemies the last piece of a puzzle that will unleash untold destruction on London and possibly the world. Meanwhile, at the court of Louis XIV, the king's latest mistress has deciphered Franklin's formula, and Adrienne's female secret society plans to use that knowledge to forward their assassination plot. Will the fearful device known only as Newton's Cannon succeed in giving the French victory--allowing malevolent forces to triumph over science, and humankind? This first entry in The Age of Unreason series has elements that will intrigue teen readers of the genre--a nice mix of historical and imaginary figures; an interesting portrait of the statesman as a young (and somewhat randy) man; lots of action, from swordplay in the palace to explosions in the laboratory; and a strong female character who rises above the societal limitations on intelligence and sphere of influence for women at that time. VOYA Codes: 4Q 3P J S (Better than most, marred only by occasional lapses, Will appeal with pushing, Junior High-defined as grades 7 to 9 and Senior High-defined as grades 10 to 12).
Library Journal
In a world where alchemy and magic form the basis of "scientific" thought, young Benjamin Franklin's inventive genius leads him into the midst of a dangerous conspiracy that threatens to destroy the world. The author of The Waterborn (LJ 6/15/96) launches an ambitious alternate history series with an intricately crafted, elegantly delivered story filled with idealism and betrayal, adventure, and philosophy. History buffs should appreciate the well-integrated period detail in this fascinating series opener. Highly recommended.
Kirkus Reviews
First of a new fantasy series: In this alternate 1715, both science and alchemy work; young Ben Franklin, apprenticed to his printer brother James in Boston, begins to study the various alchemical devicesþlights, weapons, faxes, and so on—that Isaac Newton has invented. Ben accidentally intercepts a communication on the "aether-schreiber" and helps solve the mathematical problem posed therein by an unknown scientist. Soon, however, Ben's being haunted by a weird, insubstantial demon that demands he cease his researches. Britain and France, meanwhile, fight a war using alchemical weapons. In France, Louis XIV, having taken an immortality serum and survived an assassination attempt, has been taken over by a demon, or malakus, like Ben's. Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, a vengeful ex-student of Newtonþs, uses Ben's formula to alchemically attract a comet from space towards London. Scientific genius Adrienne de Montchevreuil, forced to become the king's mistress, and helped by a secret society of women, labors to discover what Fatio has done. Ben, threatened by his malakus, flees to London to warn Newton; the latter, preoccupied with unmasking a traitor, canþt stop or divert the comet. London is annihilated after a hasty evacuation, Ben becomes Newton's apprentice, and Louis's malakus moves on to beguile Czar Peter of Russia. Keyes's yarn (The Blackgod, 1997, etc.) is colorful, intriguing, and well handled, if somewhat difficult to swallow: Itþs hard to see how alchemy and science could both work.

Product Details

Random House Publishing Group
Publication date:
Age of Unreason Series
Product dimensions:
4.16(w) x 6.89(h) x 1.02(d)

Read an Excerpt

Louis awoke to the clatter of Bontemps, his valet, putting away his folding bed, as he did every morning. A frigid wind blustered in through the open windows of his bedchamber, and Louis greeted it with none of his former pleasure. Once, it would have invigorated him. Now, he imagined the wind as death's frustrated caress.

Another metallic click, a sigh, and he heard Bontemps retreating. Louis arranged in his mind the day to come. The order in his days was his only remaining comfort. He had made Versailles into a great and precise clock, and though he was king, he was carried along by its mechanisms as surely as his lowliest servant or courtier. More certainly, in fact, since a servant might slip briefly away and steal a private moment, encounter a mistress, take a nap. This was his only private moment, in bed, pretending to be asleep. It gave him time to think and to remember.

The Persian elixir had given him new life and a body that felt younger than it had in thirty years, but it had robbed him of everything else. Gone were his brother Phillipe; his son Monseigneur; his grandson, the duke of Burgundy, and his wife, the duchess Marie-Adelaide, whose death had broken his heart. It was as if God were sweeping clean the line of Louis XIV. The dust had also claimed almost all of his old friends and companions. But worst of all was the loss of his wife, Maintenon.

Now he had only France, and France was a restless, thankless mistress. He knew—though his ministers tried to keep it from him—that there were whispers against him now. As the years passed and he grew stronger and more full of health, those who had hidden their wishes that he would die and make way for a new regime were allowing themselves snide asides. They were plotting. There were even some who whispered that the real Louis was dead, and he the devil's proxy.

He had returned to Versailles to show them he was king and to restore the image of glory to accompany his renewed health.

In the antechamber outside, he now heard the subdued chatter of the ever-present courtiers, awaiting their chance to see him. He heard footsteps entering, and he knew without opening his eyes that the porte-buchon du Roi had come in to light the fire in the fireplace.

The gears of Versailles creaked on. More footsteps as the royal watchmaker entered the room, wound Louis' watch, and departed.

Yes, he had been right to return to Versailles. Five years ago, when he was dying, his chateau of Marly—comfortable, pleasant, intimate Marly—had seemed the place to spend the remainder of his days. Versailles was drafty; it was an instrument of torture that cost a sizable fraction of the treasury each year to maintain. But Versailles was splendid, a fit dwelling for Apollo. The nation needed him here.

A shuffling from the side door was his wig maker, bringing his dressing wig and the wig of the day.

That meant he had a few more moments. Beneath the covers, he stretched, and was gratified to feel muscles respond to his commands. Since his brush with death, his body felt fresh and alive. All his old appetites were returning to him. All of them, and some would not be denied gratification much longer.

Why, then, if his body was again sound, did a feeling of dread still hound him? Why did his dreams grow persistently darker? Why did he fear being alone?

The clock struck eight. "Awaken, Sire," Bontemps said. "Your day has begun."

Louis snapped his eyes open. "Good morning, Bontemps," he said, attempting a smile. He shook his head, gazing at the lean, fiftyish face looking down at him.

"Are you ready, Your Majesty?" he asked.

"Indeed, Bontemps," he said. "You may admit whom you wish."

The morning lever continued. His doctors came in and inquired about his health. When the chamberlain admitted the first of the courtiers—the ones who had earned invitations to the grande entree through diligence—Louis found himself dreading their presence, their fawning submission, their requests.

He felt that way until he saw Adrienne de Mornay de Montchevreuil among them.

"Mademoiselle," he exclaimed, reaching to embrace her. "To what do I owe this exquisite pleasure?"

Adrienne returned his embrace and then curtsied. "I am well, as I always am in your presence, Sire." Her smile was as flawless as a perfect ruby. "I hope Your Majesty is well."

"Of course, my dear." He smiled and cast his eyes over the remainder of the courtiers, all young men, all with that hopeful light in their eyes, all wondering what advantage they might be able to extract from this dear girl.

Adrienne wore the uniform of Saint Cyr, the simple gown with black ribbons that showed she had achieved that school's highest rank—just as she had always dressed when she was his late wife's secretary. Louis generally disapproved of such informal dress, demanding that the ladies wear the grand habit, but Adrienne's clothing suited her as the clothing of the court ladies did not. It matched her thoughtful features and wide, intelligent eyes. She wore the uniform, he suspected, as a badge, a quiet proclamation that she had attended the school and had passed all of its tests. It meant that she was as educated as any woman in France, and more so than most. Louis was suddenly suspicious that she wore the gown also to remind him of how dear she had been to his wife. What was she about, this young woman?

"It is good to see you," he said. "Your letters comforted me greatly after the queen's death." That would let her know that he had been reminded, and she would now press the advantage she believed she had.

Adrienne continued to smile, a faint grin not unlike that on the Mona Lisa, which hung across from his bed. "As you know, Sire, I have taken up residence at the Academy of Sciences, serving the philosophers there."

"Ah yes, Paris. How do you find it?"

Her smile broadened. "As you do, Sire: stifling. But the work of your magi is most fascinating. Of course, I understand little of what they do and say, but nonetheless—"

"I, too, find their theories incomprehensible, yet their results are to my liking. They are a great resource to France—as are those who serve them."

She bowed her head. "I shall not waste Your Majesty's precious time, but I will tell you that I did not come to ask a boon for myself. There is a member of your academy, a certain Fatio de Duillier. A most remarkable man—"

"Near to your heart?" Louis asked, a trifle coldly.

"No, Sire," Adrienne replied quite strongly. "I would never bother you on such an account."

"And what does this young man desire?"

Adrienne caught his shifting mood, his growing impatience. "He has tried for many months to receive an audience with Your Majesty and failed," she said. "He wished only that you receive a letter from him." She paused and looked him in the eye, something that few dared to do. "It is a short letter," she finished.

He considered her for a moment. "I will receive this letter," he said at last. "This young man should know how fortunate he is to have your favor."

"Thank you, Sire." She curtsied once more, understanding that she was dismissed. A sudden thought struck Louis, and he summoned her back.

"Mademoiselle," he said, "I am planning a small entertainment on the Grand Canal several afternoons hence. I would be pleased if you would join my company on the barge."

Adrienne's eyes widened slightly, and an expression he could not identify crossed her face. "I would be pleased to, Sire."

"Good. Someone will instruct you in your attire."

He then turned to the other courtiers, listening politely while they each expressed some sentiment and asked some favor. When they were all dismissed, he stepped out of bed, preparing to dress, to keep his appointments. But he paused to receive the letter that Adrienne had passed to Bontemps. He broke its seal. It was, as the demoiselle had promised, brief.

Most Reverent Majesty.

My name is Nicolaus Fatio de Duillier. I am a member of your academy and a former student of Sir Isaac Newton himself. I tell you in all sincerity that if you speak with me but a moment, I can tell you how to win the war against England, with great finality.

Your humble and most unfortunate servant,

N. F. de Duillier.

Why have I never heard of this de Duillier?" Louis complained to his chancellor, the duke of Villeroy.

Villeroy's face was drawn beneath his plumed hat. The powder on his face did little to hide his surprise at Louis' statement.


"I have a note from him. He is one of my philosophers."

"Yes, Sire," Villeroy replied. "I know of him."

"Has he approached you as well?"

"This de Duillier has radical, unworkable ideas, Sire. I did not want you bothered with them."

Louis gazed down at Villeroy and the other ministers, intentionally letting the silence expand to fill the gallery. Then he said, his voice quite low, "Where is Marlborough now?"

A general murmur arose among the other ministers. Villeroy cleared his throat. "News came late last night that he has taken Lille."

"What of our fervefactum? How can an army take a fortress defended by a weapon that boils its blood?"

"The fervefactum has grievously short range, Majesty, and is too massive to transport. The alliance uses long-range shells, many of which have been taught magically to seek their targets. In fact, they have instructed such shells to seek our fervefactum when they are in operation. They also—" He grimaced. "At Lille they used a new weapon: a cannonball that rendered the fortress walls into glass."

"Glass?" Louis shouted.

"Yes, Sire. Transmuting the wall and shattering it simultaneously."

"What does this mean for the future of the war?"

Villeroy paused, obviously pained. "Our finances are strained," he began softly. "The people suffer from taxation and hunger. They are weary of this war, and now the tide has finally turned against us. In three years we have scarcely won a battle. And now Marlborough is moving toward Versailles, and I fear we cannot stop him."

"So my chancellor and minister of war has no proposal for staving off our imminent defeat."

Villeroy looked down at the table. "No, Sire," he whispered, shaking his head.

"Well," Louis exclaimed, "have any of my other ministers any suggestions?"

Muttering died to silence before the marquis de Torcy, the minister of foreign affairs, voiced what they were all thinking.

"Have we given no thought to a treaty?"

Louis nodded. "As all of you know, I have thrice entreated the alliance against us to conclude a peace, and have each time been cruelly rebuffed—even when I came perilously close to betraying my grandson and surrendering Spain. These people do not want peace with France, they want to destroy France. They fear our might, and they fear our command of the new sciences. Did you know that two members of my Academy of Science have been assassinated in the past year? For that reason I stationed a company of special corps to protect them. I will now move them to Versailles; Paris is too dangerous."

"What of Tsar Peter of Russia?" asked Phelypeaux, secretary of the royal household. "He has defeated Sweden and the Turk, securing his own power quite beyond question. Could we not entice him into an alliance?"

"The tsar has more to gain by watching Europe weaken itself than by taking sides. Accepting his aid would be allying with the wolf to battle the hound. Our enemies are at least civilized nations. If we were to ally with Peter, we would soon find dancing bears occupying my gardens. Worse, we would have to join with him against the Turk, and the Turk is our best weapon against Vienna."

Villeroy grimaced tightly. "And yet Peter stands only just behind you in the numbers of philosophers he employs. When Gottfried von Leibniz flocked to Peter's standard, many followed."

Louis waved that away. "I wish to summarize what has been said here today, rather than to discuss Tsar Peter. We are losing the war for want of proper weapons. You, Villeroy, have just pointed out that I have the greatest philosophers in Europe under my command, and yet England annually produces more effective artillery. How can this be?"

Villeroy straightened his hat a bit. "Your Majesty, England has Newton and his students. We have more philosophers, it is true—"

"And yet—" Louis allowed his voice to rise. "—we have one of Newton's students here, who tells me in a letter that he had to smuggle to me that he has the means to bring us victory. And no one thought I should be troubled with this?" He swept his glance about the room. "Monsieurs, I am not myself an adept, and I do not read widely. I am the king, and it is mine to judge the fate of our nation. I want to see this Fatio de Duillier, and I want to see him tomorrow, in the Cabinet des Perruques."

Plumed hats nodded like a field of poppies in the wind.

Fatio was a nervous, pinched-looking man in his midfifties. His face was dominated by a nose like the upturned keel of a boat, behind which lurked evasive, light brown eyes. His lips were continually pursed, as if he had just tasted something bad. Louis regarded him for a moment, and then took his seat in an armchair.

"Let us come to the point quickly, Monsieur," Louis stated. "I want only to ask you a question or two before hearing what you have to say about the audacious letter you sent me."

"Yes, Sire." De Duillier's voice was unexpectedly pleasant, if a bit high. Fatio was awed in the presence of the king and entirely at a loss for what to do or say. That was good, Louis felt.

"You are, I take it by your accent, Swiss?"

"Indeed, Sire."

"And you were a student of Isaac Newton?"

"Student and confidant, Your Majesty. I have brought my correspondence with him to confirm this."

"What I chiefly want to know is, Why are you no longer his confidant?"

"We had—" Fatio drew what seemed to Louis a shaky breath. "—a falling out. Sir Newton is not an easy man; he is prone to harm his friends."

"Harm them?"

"Yes, Sire. He can be quite harsh, and when his favor is withdrawn from you, it is gone forever."

"I see. So Newton cast you out."

"Not for any lack of scholarly ability, Your Majesty. His correspondence shows quite clearly that he had nothing but admiration for my skill as a mathematician."

"Do not presume, Monsieur de Duillier, to try to guess at my intentions."

"Forgive me, Sire."

"Was your quarrel with him of proportions sufficient for you to betray him? For are you not here to offer to pit some magical weapon of yours against his?"

Beads of sweat stood clearly on Fatio's head as he answered. "Majesty, I care not what happens or does not happen to England. But upon Sir Isaac Newton I wish revenge. The weapon I will detail for you will accomplish both your aims and my own. In prevailing over England, I will also show Newton that he was wrong to shun me."

"Tell me of this weapon," Louis commanded.

Fatio cleared his throat and drew forth a sheet of paper that he unfolded with trembling fingers. "Well, the principle is rather simple, but the mathematics have still to be worked out," he said. "It involves merely the creation of a certain set of affinities, but as Your Highness may know, the proofs required to actualize such—"

Louis leaned forward, frowning. "This is not what a king wants to hear," he whispered. "Kings do not care where your ideas come from. They want only to know what your work will do."

"Oh ... well—" He paused and lowered his voice. "—it will destroy London, Majesty, or any other city you care to name."

Louis stared at him, dumstruck.

"What do you mean," he asked finally, "destroy?"

"As if it never was. Not one brick shall remain."

Louis regarded him for a long moment, careful to keep his mask in place.

"How?" he asked softly.

Fatio told him, and the king's eyes widened. Then he stood and went to the window, staring out at his gardens for one quarter of an hour before turning back to where the man awaited, twisting his paper in his hands. "Monsieur de Duillier, you are a scientific man. Perhaps you can tell me this. Why do the shadows lie so long in my garden, though the sun stands at noon?"

"It is winter, Sire," Fatio replied. "The earth has tilted such that the angle of the sun is from the south. In the summer the shadows will scarcely be seen."

"Let us hope, then, Monsieur de Duillier, that God grants us another summer, for I mislike this long light. As of tomorrow you have my leave to pursue this. Your budget will triple, and I will place a staff at your disposal."

Fatio fought to keep his features under control but failed.

"Go, with my blessing," Louis said.

Fatio left, clearly on the very edge of flight, nearly tripping on his own shoe buckles.

Meet the Author

J. Gregory Keyes is a teacher at the University of Georgia and is pursuing a Ph.D. in the anthropology of belief system and mythology. He was born in Mississippi and raised there and on the Navajo reservation in Arizona. He is the author of The Waterborn and The Blackgod.

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Newton's Cannon 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 12 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book didn't catch and keep my interest. There is a lot of faux-scientific terminology and descriptions that seemed to bog down the storyline. I do want to find out what happens to the characters, but I doubt I'll spend the money to do so.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
I must say that it was the best book I have read in days. The setting of the story is interesting and a good retreat from todays times.The story line brings the culture of the eighteenth century to you like a blaring radio. Although this book is quite involving and most young readers don't like this sort of book, I would not recommened it to younger readers for culture related reasons.Overall Newton's Cannon was a outstanding, rousing tale for any reader to enjoy.
Guest More than 1 year ago
If you like reading about the time period of Ben Franklin, this book is a must read. The book is sassy, and fiesty, but says 'ME-OW'The book was very acrompofyzing and suspensful. GET IT!!!