Quicksilver – what can I possibly say about this thing?
Well, it’s massive (916 pages). And it’s historical (spanning various settings between 1655 to 1689). And it’s confusing. Reading this book was like a car chase through history, with Neal Stephenson leading us through dark historic alleys, down temporal streets the wrong way, back-tracking, and often stopping to discharge characters and pick up a few more. In the end, I’m confused, exhausted, and frustrated.
Yeah, it was that good!
The thing is, even though I didn’t catch everything the book had to offer, even though I didn’t understand several of the plots (I did like his trick of having something strange happen, and a chapter or two later, suddenly the reason became clear), I enjoyed it. I didn’t get a lot of it. But what I did was magnificent.
There are several storylines that weave and twist in that Stephenson way (as he did before, in that old favorite of mine, Snow Crash (reviewed HERE)). There is Daniel Waterhouse, a ineffectual member of the Royal Society (with two storylines, the primary in his life growing up and surviving in his random, rudderless way, and the latter, of escaping from a pirate attack off the coast of the Colonies (after meeting a young Ben Franklin, hinted at). And after we finally get settled with this Once and Future plot, then we drastically switch to mudflat boys in East London, who graduate from stealing cargos off vessels in The Pool to running an enterprise of accepting money (in advance) to yank smartly on the legs of those just-hung, to speed them on their way. And then we’re with a soldier fighting some theatrical play-siege under a mad ruler in Central Europe, but wait, its one of the mudflat boys, all grown up, and suddenly Stephenson’s taillights have whipped around another corner and we’re fishtailing after him, trying to keep up.
Like Snow Crash, there are cute moments where modern language is inserted, or even modern concepts, as referred in this letter from a character in Venice…
As I write these words I am seated near a window that looks out over a canal, and two gondoliers who nearly collided a minute ago, are screaming murderous threats at each other. This sort of thing happens all the time here. The Venetians have even given it a name: “Canal Rage”. Some say that it is a new phenomenon – they insist that gondoliers never used to scream at each other in this way. To them it is a symptom of the excessively rapid pace of change in the modern world, and they make an analogy to poisoning by quicksilver, which has turned so many alchemists into shaky, irritable lunatics.
If anything would make me an irritable lunatic, it is the fact that after suffering through confusion in reading this, I discovered 50 pages from the end that there is a full character list in the back. Just great. I could have used it some 700 pages earlier, when new names were hitting me like raindrops.
It isn’t a book for anyone – this is a reader’s book. And a great book. I really enjoyed it. And after a little break though some other covers, I’ll pick up in the second book of the Baroque Cycle.
2000 pages to go…
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