The Barnes & Noble Review
The System of the World, the third and concluding volume of Neal Stephenson's shelf-bending Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver and The Confusion), brings the epic historical saga to its thrilling -- and truly awe-inspiring -- conclusion.
Set in the early 18th century and featuring a diverse cast of characters that includes alchemists, philosophers, mathematicians, spies, thieves, pirates, and royalty, The System of the World follows Daniel Waterhouse, an unassuming philosopher and confidant to some of the most brilliant minds of the age, as he returns to England to try and repair the rift between geniuses Sir Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz. After reluctantly leaving his family in Boston, Waterhouse arrives in England and is almost killed by a mysterious Infernal Device. Having been away from the war-decimated country for two decades, Waterhouse quickly learns that although many things have changed, there is still violent revolution simmering just beneath the surface of seemingly civilized society. With Queen Anne deathly ill and Tories and Whigs jostling for political supremacy, Waterhouse and Newton vow to figure out who is trying to kill certain scientists and decipher the riddle behind the legend of King Solomon's gold, a mythical hoard of precious metal with miraculous properties.
Arguably one of the most ambitious -- and most researched -- stories ever written, Stephenson's Baroque Cycle is set in one of the most turbulent and exciting times in human history. Filled with wild adventure, political intrigue, social upheaval, civilization-changing discoveries, cabalistic mysticism, and even a little romance, this massive saga is worth its weight in (Solomon's) gold.
Paul Goat Allen
The colossal and impressive third volume (after Quicksilver and The Confusion) of Stephenson's magisterial exploration of the origins of the modern world in the scientific revolution of the baroque era begins in 1714. Daniel Waterhouse has returned to England, hoping to mediate the feud between Sir Isaac Newton and Leibniz, both of whom claim to have discovered the calculus and neither of whom is showing much scientific rationality in the dispute. This brawl takes place against the background of the imminent death of Queen Anne, which threatens a succession crisis as Jacobite (Stuart, Catholic) sympathizers confront supporters of the Hanoverian succession. Aside from the potential effect of the outcome on the intellectual climate of England, these political maneuverings are notable for the role played by trilogy heroine Eliza de la Zour, who is now wielding her influence over Caroline of Ansbach, consort of the Hanoverian heir. Eliza has risen from the streets to the nobility without losing any of her creativity or her talents as a schemer; nor has outlaw Jack Shaftoe lost any of his wiliness. What he may have lost is discretion, since he oversteps the boundaries of both law and good sense far enough to narrowly escape the hangman. In the end, reluctant hero Waterhouse prevails against the machinations of everybody else, and scientific (if not sweet) reason wins by a nose. The symbol of that victory is the inventor Thomas Newcomen standing (rather like a cock crowing) atop the boiler of one of his first steam engines. This final volume in the cycle is another magnificent portrayal of an era, well worth the long slog it requires of Stephenson's many devoted readers. Agent, Liz Darhansoff at Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman Literary Agents. 6-city author tour. (Oct.) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Responding to a request from Hanoverian Princess Caroline of Brandenburg-Ansbach, Royal Society Fellow Daniel Waterhouse leaves his Boston home to travel to London to mediate a volatile dispute between Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibnitz and Sir Isaac Newton over the origin of the calculus. There, Waterhouse becomes embroiled in the search for a clandestine group of terrorists who are attempting to assassinate prominent proponents of Natural Philosophy including Waterhouse himself. Set against the vibrant cacophony of the early 1700s, this conclusion to Stephenson's stunning "Baroque Cycle" (Quicksilver; The Confusion) stands out as a masterwork of time, place, and people. Familiar characters reappear: Jack Shaftoe acquires an even greater reputation as a rogue extraordinaire, and Eliza, the Duchess of Arcachon-Qwghlm, makes her presence felt in high society. In a style both conversationally modern and atmospherically reminiscent of the period, Stephenson captures the spirit of an age of great discoveries, high "technology," and resourceful individuals. Highly recommended for general and historical fiction collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ 6/15/04.] Jackie Cassada, Asheville-Buncombe Lib. Syst., NC Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
The Baroque Cycle crosses the finish line: somewhat winded but still spry. One thing that becomes obvious on reading this third and final volume in Stephenson's genre-defying historical reinvention (Quicksilver, 2003; The Confusion, p. 107) is that the author was right to say the work wasn't a trilogy, but just one long (nearly 3,000-page) novel. Another thing is that it's a hell of a way to finish things off. We're in the early 1700s now, and the characters are a bit older (Quicksilver started in the 1640s) but no less active, physically or mentally. The loquacious Daniel Waterhouse is still serving England as a member of the Royal Society, and the bulk of this last installment follows his attempts to stop a plot threatening the lives of his fellow scientists with a nefarious invention: the time bomb. As prolix as Waterhouse and his comrade-in-long-windedness, Isaac Newton, can be in their scientific discourses, it's nothing compared to the mind-boggling stew of conspiracy that's London, with Tories and Whigs battling for position and civil war threatened over the possible ascension of the Hanoverian Princess Caroline to the throne. While the back-and-forth can be dizzying, Stephenson's droll humor (he even tosses in an anachronistic Monty Python joke) and knack for thrilling set-pieces-the meticulously plotted escape of a Scottish rebel from the Tower of London is a tour de force of its own-act as guiding lights through the political murk. On the periphery, the onetime slave and now Duchess Eliza uses her own considerable diplomatic skills to advance her shadowy goals, and after far too long a delay comes the return of the fabled Jack Shaftoe, the Indiana Jones of the series. Stephensonknows that the inimitable Shaftoe is ultimately the star and provides him with a crowd-pleasing exit as heart-poundingly exciting as it is surprisingly emotional. Learned, violent, sarcastic, and profound: a glorious finish to one of the most ambitious epics of recent years.