Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Book Review: "Quicksilver"

Sprawling. Epic. Doorstop. Clocking in at 927 pages, Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver (Morrow, 2003) is hardly for the faint of heart or weak in wrist. Especially as it's just the first volume of a trilogy in which the succeeding books are nearly as hefty themselves. It is a vastly complicated tale with what must be hundreds (but seems like millions) of characters - some historical, some entirely made up. Of course each character going by several different names at various points doesn't help much.

For all its dense vastness and complexities (and interminable length), Quicksilver is a fascinating and engaging work. The intertwined narratives are well told, and somehow Stephenson is able to keep everything and everybody straight even if we readers may get temporarily lost along the way. The book blends history and fiction quite nicely, providing bold descriptions of England during the Restoration and Glorious Revolution periods, the formation and early years of the Royal Society, and the political, scientific and religious intrigues of seventeenth-century Europe. Sure, there's some literary license, but hey, that's what historical fiction is for.

The characters range from the peripatetic pirate Jack Shaftoe (to whom Disney's Jack Sparrow bears a remarkable and uncanny resemblance at times) to Benjamin Waterhouse (courtier, natural philosopher, Puritan), Robert Hooke, Newton and Leibniz, William of Orange
and far, far beyond.

If you've got a spare month (in fact it took me rather a lot longer than that to read this, since I went through it just a couple chapters at a time before going to sleep at night), and if you enjoy a complicated story well told, I highly recommend suspending your disbelief and hefting Quicksilver onto your lap.