Grade: Β — Fantastic book within the genre, probably worth reading regardless of which genre’s you like, but has a setting or style that may not appeal to individuals who are not fans of a given genre.
The King of the Vagabonds by Neal Stephenson, is the highly enjoyable second installment in the Baroque Cycle. Though it annoyingly does not pick up at the end of the cliff-hanger that serves as the ‘conclusion’ of Quicksilver, it is a brilliant read in its own right, chronicling the life of “Half-Cocked Jack” Shaftoe, a syphilitic vagabond and Eliza, a beautiful woman of questionable background. It proves a fun, if improbably alternate history with brilliant descriptions that show a solid understanding of the period.
An alternate history romp across 17th Century Europe.
The King of the Vagabonds by Neal Stephenson, is the highly enjoyable second installment in the Baroque Cycle. Rather than picking up at the end of the cliff-hanger that serves as the ‘conclusion’ of Quicksilver (the book, not the volume), this book chronicles the life of “Half-Cocked Jack” Shaftoe, a syphilitic vagabond who began his life as a street urchin from the Isle of Dogs, and made his way up to the lofty heights of a legendary Vagabond-cum-mercenary (not an uncommon combination). It also follows the tale of Eliza, a woman of questionable background (I can’t say more without spoiling some very good parts of the book), whose fortunes become intertwined with Jack’s early in the story. Along the way, the pair of them encounter a vast array of period nobles, scientists, soldiers and economic powers, most of whom are actual historical characters.
To this end, the book follows in the vein of the first volume of the series (Quicksilver), albeit from a very different end of the social spectrum. It does not, however, continue directly on from the storyline of that book, which I initially found quite irritating, as that Quicksilver left its hero, Daniel Waterhouse, in a quite precarious position (one can only hope it gets resolved in subsequent volumes). The King of the Vagabonds’ storyline takes a completely different tack, with a completely different protagonist. It does, however, intersect with several of the same historic characters and clearly intertwines with the over-arching frame plot of the series.
As a result, rather than learning more about the Puritan naturalist Waterhouse, we find ourselves following the exploits of Jack and Eliza, as they tramp their way across war-torn Europe. Along the way, the pair encounter many of the ‘good and the great’ of the period, including William of Orange and even the Sun King himself. While this does make for a very entertaining read, the improbability of ‘the likes of them’ meeting any such notable characters, not to mention all of them, is so slim that it severely pressed my ability to sustain disbelief. Even so, Stephenson’s brilliant descriptions and wonderful prose carries it off, and even turns the ridiculousness of the situation into a central plot element.
Perhaps best of all, Stephenson manages to create a completely sympathetic central character out of a mangy, down and out and somewhat villainous man who got his start being paid to dangle from the legs of hanged men. The author does a brilliant job of demonstrating the crushing nature of social class by telling the tale of this clearly intelligent man, whose options were limited by his lack of education, and/or social opportunities. It is extremely well done.
What is a little less skillfully performed is the sudden change of perspective that occurs in the book. At the outset, the story follows Jack Shaftoe from his early beginnings to his vagabondary/mercenary (though there is a sudden time-shift early on that threw me a little). Then, about halfway through the story, we suddenly switch to Eliza’s point of view. While we have seen her as a secondary character long enough at this point that the POV shift is not a horrible thing, it still grated slightly. After all, up to this point, the POV of the story had been solidly with Jack, and so suddenly finding ourselves in the mind of the other major character did not flow quite as clearly as one might have hoped. Still, her story is interesting and central to the plot of the book and (I suspect) the series, so it was an acceptable change of view that truly furthered the tale.
This aside, the book was really exceptionally well told. It has beautifully written passages describing the world in which Jack and Eliza live, whose prose mimics that of the period without trying to match it too closely.
More importantly, despite the fact that this is the middle tale in a trilogy that is part of a larger series, this book is almost a perfect circle in-and-to-itself. I do not want to spoil any of the tale, so I can’t go into any real detail, but suffice it to say that the end place that our two main characters are left is wonderfully tied to how each of them entered the story. What is more, it does so without hitting you on the head about it.
To that end, I loved this book, but will note that it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. It lingers on the wordy side when it comes to descriptions, and is part of a long series. Still, unless you really only want action adventure (this has plenty of it, but it is paced within a larger framework) I think that it is worth a try, and if you’re like me… you’ll love it.
Notes about the Audio Edition:
Yet again, Brilliance Audio get’s it right. A very well produced audiobook, that brilliantly mimics the reading of the volume itself. Clear, crisp chapter and section divides makes it obvious when scenes are changing and, of course, they recruited class A talent to read the story, Simon Prebble.
Simon Prebble is one of the best narrators out there. His use of different voices, particularly his ability with accents and the reading of female parts is perfect. He reads each character ever so slightly differently, using his wonderful ability with accents sparingly and so keeping us within the perspective a single narrator while simultaneously bringing even the minor characters to life. Listening to him narrate is as close to reading the book ones self as I can imagine.
Reviews of the rest of the Quicksilver Collection (first part of the Baroque Cycle):
It should be noted that King of the Vagabonds is the second part of the Baroque Cycle, and as such was also included in a single volume entitled Quicksilver, which was also the title of the first installment of the Baroque Cycle as a whole. 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 I and III of the Baroque Cycle are shortlinked below.
 This gets very confusing, especially as that I listened to these books on audio, but apparently, the Volume Quicksilver contains three books, Quicksilver, King of the Vagabonds and Odalisque.
 Some (including Stephenson in the introduction) choose to short hand the definition of vagabond as a homeless person, but in many ways the social and cultural differences of the period create a subtle differentiation between the modern definition and the period vagabond (a difference which Stephenson catches brilliantly in the text). A homeless person of today is really just the PC term for a wide variety of ‘down and outs’ who in previous centuries (at least the 17th and 18th Centuries) would have been defined and classified as beggars, vagrants, rovers, etc and more modernly as bums, tramps, hobos or travelers.
In this instance, a vagabond would have little in common with individuals whose modern connotation think of as homeless, but may be more akin to traditional hobos (that is individuals who travel the rails… e.g. the central character of the song, King of the Road) or in one sense British Travelers (though without the New Age connotations), or perhaps most closely the Irish term Tinker. They often had some pliable skills that could be used to gain money, but had no fixed abode and frequently stood on the wrong side of the legal divide. Jack, our principle character, was a classic Vagabond of the period.
 Besides, one of the advantages of alternate histories is that the ramifications of characters actions do not impact actual history. As a result, it severely aids in my ability to sustain my disbelief.
 Eliza’s tale is also skillfully told, but she is much more sympathetic from the moment we meet her, and to that end, it is not quite as difficult to write her POV in a sympathetic light.
- Neal Stephenson’s Reamde is a high-tech incarnation of the Great American Novel [Book Review] (io9.com)
- What should I read after Reamde (Stephenson) (ask.metafilter.com)
- Mr Litlove’s Lists (litlove.wordpress.com)
- Is Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle “appropriate” reading for a 12 year old? (ask.metafilter.com)
- Neal Stephenson Talks About Video Games, The Metaverse, And His New Book, REAMDE (forbes.com)
- Neal Stephenson’s REAMDE: A review for Stephenson fans (jargonmaster.wordpress.com)
- Out of Neal Stephenson’s Imagination Came a New Online World (nytimes.com)