Sunday, April 13, 2008

The Baroque Cycle finally finishes

Well, it was quite a ride. Quite a ride, indeed. But I finished the Baroque Cycle, the 3000-page (in hardback! It's something like 8 paperbacks) historical novel set in the days of Newton, science and calculus, currency, and the beginning of the modern world.

If you haven't been following along, the story revolves around three larger-than-life characters: Daniel Waterhouse, Newton's schooltime chum and doer of deeds; Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, a kind of bloody-minded adventurer, beggar, and explorer; and Eliza, the woman Jack loves, a master of markets and influence. Behind the scenes, they create the atmosphere in which the greats of the era get things done.

What surprised me most was the lengths to which modernity depended on Newton's project to create a money system that could be trusted. He spent half his life on a project I hadn't even known was important. I used to think that Newton's best years were behind him when he went to work at the Mint. This book certainly put it in perspective for me.

I don't know how to describe it exactly. At the beginning of the book, the world is very chaotic and new. By the end of the last volume (titled The System of the World), Newton and his generation have created systems, and even in a way, systematic knowledge. Newton and Leibniz divide the world between them, all else is technology, that sort of thing.

I watched the modern world come into being, while caring about the poignant and hilarious adventures of this motley crew (and there's a cast of hundreds to care about, if you can). It's hard to believe that so much could get packed into one story, but somehow it did. And it definitely played hard and well as a counterpoint to and illumination of our modern times.

Plus, Monty Python jokes, including an absolute howler in Volume III.

I will definitely need longer to digest it, but it's been an amazing trip. I've been reading these for months, and I haven't appreciated all the subtleties, I'm sure. If you have several weeks to devote to one work of fiction, this would take you to great places. I feel like I can finally get back to reading three books at once, which is more like normal mode for me.

My only quibble is this: I know that the story takes artistic license with the events of the period. So I now have more fictional knowledge about the Baroque era than real knowledge. It's like Alan Moore's graphic novel From Hell, which gave me fictional knowledge about Jack the Ripper. So, now that I'm interested in this stuff, I'll have to read a great deal of history. No doubt some fictional knowledge will always be mixed in from now on.

Also like Alan Moore's graphic novel about Jack the Ripper, this series is for adults only. I don't actually worry too much about kids reading for the sex, violence, disturbing images, language and adult situations. They're never going to make it past the superb language, the hunks of world knowledge inserted by the author, and the thinking they'd have to do to put it together.

Five Stars.

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