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January 22, 2007

The Baroque Cycle - A Review

I finished reading The System Of The World at the weekend, which finishes off The Baroque Cycle (UK/US), by Neal Stephenson. Yes, I've read all 3000 or so pages of the monster story. And I'm pleased to say it was worth it.

Rather than just give a review of The System Of The World, I'll point to my reviews of Quicksilver and The Confusion, and give my opinions now I've finished the whole thing.

It is, in short, quite amazing. If you know nothing about it, here's a quick summary.

Science, politics, economics, pirates, daring adventures, kings, thieves, wars and the genesis of computers. Yes, all of that.

The story follows a handful of characters through the late 17th century and into the early 18th century. (About 1650 ish to 1714). The characters include a scientist (called Natural Philosopher in those days) who shared a room at college with Isaac Newton, a vagabond turned folk hero, a woman rescued from a Harem turned financial wizard, a whole of host of The Royal Society and quite a few kings. The action is set mainly in Europe, mostly in London, although things do take off around the world at one point. One of the central relationships in the story is the rivalry between Leibniz and Newton, over who invented calculus. It sounds dry, but the writing is fantastic, fun, witty and full of adventure. It brings the period to startling life.

As a tip, don't expect too much of a conventional plot, especially in Quicksilver. Yes stuff happens, but lots of stuff happens. Forget expectations and just enjoy the ride. The Confusion is probably the closest to a conventional set of plots, and for me the most enjoyable part of the saga. Having said that the final part brings everything together very nicely and has some great set pieces.

By the end of the story you really know the characters well, love them or hate them. You've lived their lives, been along for the ups and downs. Stephenson is often criticised for his endings but The Baroque Cycle ends wonderfully. With enough pages for a normal writer to use as a novel, he slowly winds some things up, whilst bringing several threads to a great climax. Then make us happy with some epilogues.

I finished the last page beaming. It was a fantastic journey. You really should read it.


Quite right mate! It's a quality set of books and for my money the best set of books written (at least in this genre) for the past 20 years. Quality. I can't wait to see what Neal Stephenson does next (other than The Diamond Age TV movies)

Isn't it awesome? I almost find myself hoping I have a long term illness so I could sit down and re-read the whole set, end to end and uninterrupted.

I read the three of them back to back - because Neal was running late with them the first one came out a few months after the original publication date, so the second came out closer to the first than it would have and I ended up with advance proofs of both of them within weeks. By the time I had finished them the third proof was almost upon me. And huge though it was I was sad it was over because it was one of the best pieces of fiction (of any genre) I've read in years.

A couple of my mates have gone on about the first 100 pages and not a lot happening, therefore they stopped reading it. I have verbally slapped them by drawing contrast to Lord Of The Rings and it's opening 150 pages of hobbit folklore... insane, says I.

Although more happens in those 150 pages than in the whole second part of The Two Towers, which is just dull.

But yes, The Baroque Cycle is slow to start I guess, but worth it.