Fiction, Alternate History
Grade: Δ — (Delta) A solid read, but only buy it if you like the genre
Odalisque is a solid, enjoyable addition to Neal Stephenson‘s Baroque Cycle, but as that it is the third entry in the series (and also marketed as both its own volume (at least in audio format) and part a collected volume called Quicksilver, which is also the title of the first installment in the book/series), it really does require the reader to already be invested in the tale. Not to say that one could not read this without having read the rest of the book, but one’s enjoyment of it will be more limited. What is more, I feel that this series is getting a bit long in the tooth by this stage. Even so, I did enjoy reading it despite the fact that I don’t feel the need to go out at once and pick up the next volume.
Alternate history, 17th Century England and France, with some side trips to the Lowlands. For the most part, however, the story takes place in the court of the Sun King (Louis XIV) and the English court at the transition between the reigns of Charles II and James II.
Odalisque is a francophonic term derived from the Turkish word Odalik. In English (and French) it originally referred to a Chambermaid or Attendant, but also holds the connotation of a mistress, concubine or courtesan. This is only appropriate as that in Turkish the term referred specifically to the lowest strata of a harem – not a concubine, but an individual who had the possibility of being ‘elevated’ to such a status.
All of which goes to show Stephenson’s continued mastery of linguistic games, for in this volume both of the principal characters play the roles of courtiers, with Eliza, who was saved from a being a Harem concubine in the last volume, now serving in part as an attendant, courtesan of sorts, and indeed a spy in this book. Daniel Waterhouse, the other protagonist in this volume, is almost her opposite – for though he has no sexual exploits in the book, he serves in the Stewarts intellectual harem, as it were: the Royal Society. All of which goes to show the convolutions by which Stephenson’s mind works, and as such demonstrates both the strengths and weaknesses of this work.
In Odalisque, the third installment of Quicksilver, and as such either part three of that book, or book three of the Baroque series as a whole, we finally see the varying protagonists storylines come together (my reviews of installment 1: Quicksilver, and Installment 2: King of the Vagabonds). Daniel Waterhouse, the son of a noted anti-monarchist Puritan, is now Secretary of the Royal Society and as such serves as an advisor to the soon to be late Charles II, a man who actually killed Daniel’s father. Eliza, once a harem slave, is now a spy in the service of Gottfried Leibniz (amongst others) and also serves as an economic advisor to varying European Nobles (including William of Orange, for whom she is also a spy).
While Daniel (who is plotting to overthrow the Stewarts) becomes a confidant of the Duke of York (soon to be James II), Eliza is sent to the Court of Louis the XIV where she becomes first a governess, then a lady in attendance and economic advisor and eventually a paramour (i.e. a courtesan of sorts). Both Daniel and Eliza eventually make the acquaintance of Bob Shaftoe, the more reputable brother of Jack Shaftoe (sic. King of the Vagabonds), who saved Eliza from slavery in the second installment of this series. With this, the varying plotlines finally merge and the overarching plot line for the Baroque Cycle is set in motion.
Yet, while I enjoyed the varying intrigues and the historic and linguistic games that Stephenson plays throughout the book, I did find that it was beginning to suffer a bit from the “GET ON WITH IT” syndrome. Unlike some books that suffer from this (e.g. The Song of Ice and Fire), I enjoyed the read (or rather listen) throughout this book, but at the conclusion felt it had dragged a bit. In part this was due to the very infodumpy nature of the book, which I also greatly enjoyed, and in part due the cliff-hanger ending of Quicksilver: the Baroque Cycle #1 was not resolved at the end of this installment.
To that end, while I did thoroughly enjoy listening to this book, I cannot say that I feel all that inspired to continue on with the next installment. I probably will eventually, but while I like the style (even the enormous info dumps that take up the majority of this book) and the heavy emphasis on history throughout, I did not leave this volume as inspired to carry on the tale as I had with the previous installments.
Thus I feel I can safely say that this book is likely to prove enjoyable to those who like Alternate Histories, but will not be engaging to those who are not so inclined. I will also note, however, that unlike many Alternate Histories, this book is very well researched and despite the fact it pulls every major event of the period together, it does not seem as contrived as many such tales. So, a good read, but really only for those who like the genre and are already invested in the series as a whole.
Notes about the Audio Edition:
Brilliance Audio produced another fine work here, brilliantly combining the talents of Simon Prebble (always a good start), Katherine Kellgren, and Kevin Pariseau, while also providing a forward by Neal Stephenson. It is read in alternating chapter style, with the different narrators reading the parts associated with different characters. This works particularly well for many of the Eliza chapters, as that they take the form of letters and as such are first person point-of-view. Katherine Kellgren does a good job of this, though at times I wondered if the high-born accent and tones she used throughout the tale were wholly appropriate for her character. It is not the use of proper Oxbridge English, per se, but rather the very plumby way in which she read throughout. Of course, Eliza is supposed to be highly educated and combed from youth to be elegant, so perhaps it was appropriate all the same.
Regardless, it was a delightful listen and I would suggest this is a very good way for individuals to read the book.
Reviews of the rest of the Quicksilver Collection (first part of the Baroque Cycle):
My reviews of Parts I and II of the Baroque Cycle are shortlinked below.
 I’d say British, but the book does focus fully on the English side of things.
 If you think that’s convoluted, try reading the book.
 Who could also be called Sir Not Appearing in this Film.
- Baroque computers (johndcook.com)
- Quicksilver (www.sophyanempire.wordpress.com)
- King of the Vagabonds (www.sophyanempire.wordpress.com)
- The Mongoliad: Books 1 & 2 (taichungbookworm.wordpress.com)
- Neal Stephenson’s Hieroglyph Project Launches (longnow.org)
- Neal Stephenson Asks Sci-Fi Writers to Imagine a Better Future (slog.thestranger.com)
- Review of “Interface” (ivanidris.net)