Quicksilver: Baroque Cycle Book 1, Neal Stephenson (HarpurCollins Publisher 2003: {Brilliance Audio, 2010; Narrator: Simon Prebble}

Γ — Good book within the genre.  Solid story, good characters, if you like this genre, read this book.

In brief: The first of a trilogy that Quicksilver, is a very good read (or listen in my case), though like other of Stephenson’s works, it does sometimes read like an enormous info-dump.  Still, this novel combines pirate adventure, political intrigue, history of science, gear-punk and alchemy in equal parts and comes up with an extremely intelligent and enjoyable story. I can’t say this book is for everyone, but for that growing number of speculative fiction fans who want to think deeply about their reading, I highly recommend this book.

Setting: Alternate history, 17th Century England and 18th Century Massachusetts Bay Colony (modern US)

In Depth: I normally detest historic fiction. It’s the curse of knowing too much about any given period. In this case, however, Stephenson walks the balance of history and fiction quite well.  This is in no small part helped by the fact that this is an Alternative History, which gives Stephenson more leeway to play with the facts.  Thus, he manages to pull together the lives historic figures such as Sir Isaac Newton and Edward Teach (yes, as in Blackbeard the Pirate) in a manner that doesn’t make me roll my eyes the way I normally do when Great Events are pulled together too neatly.

Like some other of his works, huge portions of this book are best described as Info Dumps, but as noted in previous reviews, Stephenson manages to pull this off remarkably well (though I wouldn’t read this right after Anathem or The Cryptonomicon if I were you). Some of this dumping is necessary to bring the average reader up to par with life during the Restoration, and some of it is necessary to illustrate how his world is different from the real one.

What is perhaps most interesting to me is how the author managed to keep the reader (or in my case, the listener) involved in this alternate history lesson by weaving the personal history of the very fictional central character through the story.  In this, I feel he manages to do what Umberto Eco is often accused of failing to do in Foucault’s Pendulum (actually, I must confess that Foucault’s Pendulum is one of my favorite books, but I know a huge number of people who find it impenetrable due to the huge amounts of history and occult trivia involved).  Stephenson draws together events by creating a vested interest in the info dump itself; a very hard task to accomplish if you ask me.

Beyond this, the book sets up what promises to be an excellent series.  I intend to give myself a bit of a rest before plowing on with it (due to time constraints), but I look forward to picking it up where I left off.

Notes about the Audio Edition:

Quicksilver was marvelously narrated by Simon Prebble, with additional bits by Kevin Pariseau and Neal Stephenson. The tone of the narration added to the tale, pulling me through the work as if I were sitting in a comfy chair by a warm fire.

Reviews of the rest of the Quicksilver Collection (first part of the Baroque Cycle):

It should be noted that the title Quicksilver refers both to the first installment of the Baroque Cycle as a whole, and to the collected volume of the first Three installments of the Baroque Cycle.  In brief, it was marketed as both, and this became quite confusing to me having listened to the audiobooks, where each volume of Quicksilver (the collection) was given its own title.  To that end, the reviews of Parts II and III of the Baroque Cycle are shortlinked below.

King of the Vagabonds – The Second Part of the Baroque Cycle

Odalisque – The Third Part of the Baroque Cycle 

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About Thomas Evans

I'm a writer of mysteries, espionage, and speculative fiction. In my previous incarnation I was an archaeologist specializing in gender and identity in Iron and Bronze Age Europe. Mostly, however, I was known for my works with the use of geomatics, multiscalular spatial analysis and landscape theory within archaeology.
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2 Responses to Quicksilver: Baroque Cycle Book 1, Neal Stephenson (HarpurCollins Publisher 2003: {Brilliance Audio, 2010; Narrator: Simon Prebble}

  1. Redhead says:

    I read Quicksilver a year or two ago, and it really got me started on a history kick. Infodumps are usually the devil, but somehow Stephenson pulls them off in an un-annoying way.

    I’m curious, how many hours long was the audiobook? Also, I’m not a history or geography buff, not by a longshot, so I found the maps in the book to be very helpful. Did the audiobook come with any papermaps or anything? I wonder if that would be more of a big deal in a fantasy novel that’s got maps?

  2. Thomas Evans says:

    Sorry for the delay in responding. Sickness rules our home at the moment.

    The audio version I read came as a download from the library, so it came with nothing else. Fortunately, I didn’t need any, but now that you mention it, I could see how they would come in useful. I would guess a CD version would have included maps, but how they would manage that on a direct to iPod is a good challenge. I did the Song of Ice And Fire with both books and audiobooks, but I did find it a bit confusing at times when listening to the tale and trying to remember where things were on the maps.

    As for the length… the unabridged version ran about 14 hours, 40 minutes. Now… off to the world of lemsips while my boy slumbers fitfully.

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