"In the year 1689, a cabal of Barbary galley slaves -- including one Jack Shaftoe, aka King of the Vagabonds, aka Half-Cocked Jack -- devises a daring plan to win freedom and fortune. A great adventure ensues -- a perilous race for an enormous prize of silver ... nay, gold ... nay, legendary gold" --Cover, p. 4.
Juncto is set in northern Europe and features Eliza, Duchess of Arcachon and Qwhglm, and Daniel Waterhouse. Bonanza follows the adventures of Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe from his days as a galley slave along the Barbary Coast through Egypt, the Indian sub-continent (Hindoostan), the Far East, New Spain (Mexico) and ultimately back to England.
If you read Volume I, Quicksilver, or the three books that were encompassed therein, then you are familiar with the characters and the historical landscape (late 17th, early 18th century). While the historical fiction contained in these works is highly educational and at times fascinating (at others, somewhat confusing), this is not my favorite Stephenson effort. Nevertheless, as in his cyberpunk and sci-fi stories, a certain level of attention and effort is required in order fully grasp the author’s work. Some may not want to put forth the effort, but I appreciate it.
OK, I am a bit of an armchair philosopher. I think it was buried in this book, some discussion that the puzzle of the continuum and the puzzle of free will are linked somehow. Actually there is a nice discussion of the theory of monads of Leibniz... that presumable sketches out the link, but it's too slender a link to carry any weight. Of course folks have started from a kite string and gradually built up stronger and stronger cables to build a bridge of interstate highway capacity, so ... will volume 3 revisit the philosophical conundrums? We certainly seem set up for a lot more of that kind of action!
It's a big fat book but enough of a page turner!
Thus, the adventures of Jack and Eliza often seems like, well, filler. Filler for the last book.
Still an entertaining read and I absolutely adore Stephenson for the amount of research he has put into the book. Knowing a little bit of your European history in the 17th and 18th century will certainly help to keep the Kings and Queens straight *g* Sadly enough, I had to look up a lot of it.
I will definitely pick up the last book of the trilogy, but only after some light and short books inbetween.
Don't worry, the payoff and gratification makes it worth every bit. In fact, the good bits are better than any other author I can think of having read.
It might take a bit of courage (yes, this whole series is monstrously large), but dig in and go for it. Where else are you going to learn all of these obscure historical tidbits, eh?
"The Confusion" covers the years 1689-1702 and consists of two interlocking books, "Bonanza" and "The Juncto." Since events in each book influence those in the other, they are con-fused so that the volume as a whole is less confusing; we switch back and forth between the two books, reading a few chapters in one before turning to the other. The approach works well. Instead of jumping back to 1689 in the middle of the volume, the whole story unfolds more or less chronologically. There are occasionally gaps of an entire year or two in the narrative, which is a little disconcerting, but helps to keep the plot moving.
At the beginning of "Bonanza," we rejoin Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, some four years after he was enslaved by the Barbary Corsairs. A fever has cured his pox and restored his sanity, but at the same time removed all his memories of the past four years. Jack learns that he is part of a group of galley slaves - the Cabal - plotting to steal a boatload of silver from the Spanish and use part of the proceeds to buy their freedom. There is only one problem: the silver they capture turns out to be gold. Even worse, this gold has incredible alchemical powers - or, at least, so the alchemists believe. Terrified that their alchemical gold will be spent and thus con-fused with the common metal, the Esoteric Brotherhood will pursue the Cabal to the ends of the earth to get it back - or, failing that, to get revenge.
Eliza, meanwhile, has involuntarily donated her considerable fortune to the French war effort after being captured by privateer Jean Bart while fleeing to England . As she tries to recover, the European economy is thrown into confusion by a series of bad loans and bad harvests coupled with the seemingly endless wars that have sucked up all of the continent's money. Eliza, along with "The Juncto," a powerful group of English politicians, has the task of rebuilding Europe 's financial system on the basis of trade, laying the groundwork for modern economics. Her task is not made any easier by the alchemists, who know of her connection to Jack Shaftoe, and hope to get to him through her.
As I hoped, I found "The Confusion" more entertaining than "Quicksilver." The pace is much quicker, and the action and actual plot development makes the volume much more engrossing. I occasionally got the feeling that more happened in particular scenes in "The Confusion" (for example, the Duc d'Arcachon's birthday party) than in the whole of "Quicksilver." There's still plenty of interesting errata (as we expect in a Stephenson book), though Daniel Waterhouse is largely missing - he doesn't appear until about 2/3rds of the way through the volume, and scampers off to Massachusetts pretty quickly after that. Finally, the conclusion does a wonderful job setting up the final volume; I can hardly wait until it's out.
Those who have made their way through "Quicksilver" owe it to themselves to move onto "The Confusion" so that their efforts can be rewarded. If you were hesitant about starting "The Baroque Cycle" after reading mixed reviews of the first volume, you can rest assured that "The Confusion" makes it all worthwhile. If "The System of the World" is up to the standard set by "The Confusion" (and I suspect it will be), "The Baroque Cycle" will end up as a masterpiece of massive historical fiction.
Given this shift of emphasis to Jack, the book is actually more coherent and easy to follow, especially since there are few new characters introduced on the European stage. But since I found the picaresque exploits of Jack Shaftoe the least interesting of this series’ main storylines, I enjoyed The Confusion perhaps a bit less than Quicksilver, even though it was easier to read.
Never the less, several episodes in the adventures of Jack’s own little cabal stand out: their encounters in India and Japan are especially good fun. Much less interesting is the book’s rather interminable section in the New World; Stephenson seems to lose his narrative energy here, as if he felt he had to throw in some adventures in Spanish-colonial Mexico just to get his main characters across the western hemisphere and back over to Europe.
This series isn’t for everyone, but since I’m still finding the frequent asides on subjects ranging from science and technology to shipbuilding and navigation to money and banking highly diverting and indeed instructive, I’m looking forward very much to finishing off the cycle with volume III.
What a difference a book makes! Over the course of this second book, I found myself musing on the story even while I was not reading about the continued adventures of Eliza and Jack. This book is reward for struggling through the first, which was enormously dense and detailed.
The book is shared between Eliza (Juncto) and Jack (Bonanza), their stories intertwining. We find Jack alive and well, and free from the French pox (syphilis). He has been captured by Barbary pirates and his tale involves a convoluted plot between him and other members of the Cabal - to capture a shipment of gold that will lead to their fortunes being made. His story leads him across the world - through the Far East and finally taking a dangerous trip to Acapulco. The capture of the gold has massive repercussions across the world, affecting many including Eliza, who starts her story being waylaid by Jean Bart and carried back to France, where she once again begins manipulating trade.
This time both stories are equally gripping for one reason or another, and the skipping between both allows Stephenson to develop two different tones - the formal, slow burning plot of Eliza and the swashbuckling adventures of Jack Shaftoe.
Many, many characters take centre stage here and become beloved to the reader over the course of 800 pages. Obviously Jack and Eliza will have the attention of the reader, but there is also Leibniz (the dignified and friendly Natural Philosopher who has befriended Eliza from the beginning); Bob Shaftoe (brother of Jack, more upright and stolid); Princess Caroline (beautiful and fiercely intelligent); and the many entertaining members of the Cabal.
We also see the beginnings of Minerva - the ship that is carrying Daniel Waterhouse back to England at the start of the first book in the trilogy - and meet her captain van Hoek (a Dutch captain who feels the need to shed body parts when in gravest danger).
Altogether I am being overwhelmed gradually by the trilogy of books, and can find much to love about them. On the flipside, the writing is still inpenetrable at times and leaves me feeling confused as to what is actually occuring. At times the pacing of the story is woeful - leaving spells where I actually avoid picking up the book, although curiosity in the fates of Jack and Eliza always brings me back.
I would tentatively recommend this book to everyone I know - with the proviso that it is still not *easy* reading (and that they have to suffer through book one to reach the heights of book two).
Jack Shaftoe, now a galley slave in Algiers, joins a conspiracy to pirate a Spanish treasure and escape slavery. He and nine other oar-mates embark on their adventure burdened with Jack's usual mix of good and bad luck. Sea battles, land battles and general havoc follow the cabal of misfits across oceans and continents.
Daniel has a smaller role in this volume, but the role of Jack's more socially integrated brother Bob waxes into a remarkable war-filled journey to free his enslaved love, Abigail. Eliza, in the meantime, has lost her fortune and her firstborn son and must tread carefully to keep her head amid the perils of the French court. Eliza works to recover her son and wreak havoc on the financial markets of Europe.
Jack's adventures from South America to Japan and Eliza's maneuverings in Europe draw you along at breathtaking speed with enough momentum to propel you through the 800+ pages. The pace rarely falters and Stephenson continues to make even the secondary characters interesting. He also maintains the obvious attention to research and detail found in Quicksilver. The Confusion neatly sets the scene for the third and final book as divergent plots start to converge, and I can't wait to see where Stephenson will take us next.
I slogged through this one, like some of the characters enduring long confinement and staying alive because they did not lose sight of their cause, their final destination. I admit I put it aside several time to read other books, but I always came back to it. To have that much of a hold on me has to say something about the story.
Will I go on to complete the Cycle? I am not sure, but I am anxious to get to the Cryptonomicon. Will I read them in order? Probably, but I may not.
Like Quicksilver, it is loosely based on history, but I hesitate to call it historical fiction. I was pleased to read in the interview included in the book, Stephenson is well aware of his linguistic anachronisms and they were intentional. In reviews of other of Stephenson’s works I said he is a geek’s author. This solidifies that comment and validates that this is not a slam against him, but a compliment. You need to be well grounded in a lot of obscure areas to appreciate what goes on in the Baroque Cycle.
Because it is so ponderous, I cannot give this a full five stars. Because I found the story so captivating I kept returning to it, I can’t say this is simply mediocre. Four stars, but not everyone will agree, I’m sure.
Daniel Waterhouse comes from a family of Puritans and sits between Newton and Leibniz as a member of the Royal Society. Eliza is a former slave whose brilliant grasp of trade and modern economy has led her to the heights of power and intrigue in Europe, and Jack Shaftoe is a vagabond with the uncanny ability to make the most of just about any pickle he finds himself in. In this way, Stephenson's main cast gives us insight into the world of science and philosophy, the world of nobility, the world of finance and economy, and the lives of those with lesser means. This is only the barest synopsis, however, as these are novels of staggering narrative complexity which cover the globe over a long span of time. While at times it reads as a ripping good adventure story with a light and easy to follow narrative, really investing in the books requires keeping track of many characters, locations and plots. It is not a difficult read, but it is a read that requires close attention.
This volume largely follows the stories of Eliza and Jack. They have long since parted ways, and while there are a number of connections between their stories, they largely are involved in independent adventures. I found that the Jack passages were far more interesting in this novel than they were in the first volume, *Quicksilver.* In reading that one, I often found myself wanting to get back to Daniel and Eliza, because they were more directly engaged in the world of ideas than Jack. Jack's story here picks up for two reasons. One is that he becomes part of a Cabal of enormously entertaining characters, most particularly Dappa, Moseh de la Cruz, Otto van Hoek and Gabriel Goto. The second is that his adventures have expanded in scope, both in their daring and their geographical coverage. The expansive story of Jack's adventures is a nice counter-balance to Eliza's story. I still find Eliza's chapters to be riveting, but they mostly take place within Europe, and within the intrigues of court society.
One aspect of Eliza's story that is particularly well done is the reaction to the novel views of currency and finance that are developing at the time. We generally think that we are pretty comfortable with ideas like credit, and the fluidity of the market. We get it that money does not need to acquire its value solely from the materials used in it. However, these are radical ideas at the time, and Stephenson does a wonderful job making us feel the confusion (and see that ideas which might seem intuitive to us are anything but!). This is nicely illustrated in a memorable scene where Eliza uses the various members of the court as props in an elaborate demonstration of financial operations. The economic ideas take center stage in *The Confusion,* and they are handled with aplomb.
This does mean that we have to forgo the adventures of Daniel, which is a bit disappointing (particularly given how we left him at the end of *Quicksilver*!). I generally find Daniel's chapters the most interesting, as his academic pursuits most closely mirror my own (as a philosophy professor!). However, even without Daniel, the story continues on with the same wit and wonderful plotting.
It does also retain some of the weaknesses of the prior volume. The dialogue can occasionally be clunky. Characters are, more often than not, trying to talk with a great deal of wit and nuance. Whie this generally works, it does occasionally become difficult to imagine real people saying some of these things. This can also happen when characters make gratuitious references to the academic matters at hand. Stephenson wants to show us these ideas percolating into the culture as an entirely new way of looking at the world, but these references can occasionally be strained. These passages seem off for two reasons. The first is that it makes brilliant characters like Waterhouse look as if their grasp of the ideas is incomplete, and second, it can make for clunky, expository writing. These are the exceptions, however, and far from the norm. Stephenson generally shows a very strong grasp of the ideas he is discussing, and is able to work most of them into the text quite successfully.
If you enjoyed the first volume, there is no reason not to read *The Confusion.* It's more of the same, and that's quite a compliment.
The other picara is the Eliza herself, as she floats through Europe, hounded by men of obvious intent, but varying technique. Actually having children, but only one by a romantic attachment. As this is a middle volume, she remains imperilled at its conclusion.
Neal Stephenson continues to draw for us all a portrait of the most important age of the history of our planet, and to put warts and sweat on the faces of many famous names, who gain in humanity what they now lose in false auras.
Sadly, there's only another volume to go, but I'm still up for it.
Academics at each others' throats, poisonings, insane economic gambles, pirates, and world explorations all await within these pages. Man, I'm making myself want to read this series all over again.