In the year 1714, the world is a most confused and unsteady place — especially London, center of finance, innovation, and conspiracy — when Daniel Waterhouse makes his less-than-triumphant return to England’s shores. Aging Puritan and Natural Philosopher, confidant of the high and mighty, and contemporary of the most brilliant minds of the age, he has braved the merciless sea and an assault by the infamous pirate Blackbeard to help mend the rift between two adversarial geniuses at a princess’s behest. But while much has changed outwardly, the duplicity and danger that once drove Daniel to the American Colonies is still coin of the British realm.
The Baroque Cycle, Neal Stephenson’s award-winning series, spans the late 17th and early 18th centuries, combining history, adventure, science, invention, piracy, and alchemy into one sweeping tale. It is a gloriously rich, entertaining, and endlessly inventive historical epic populated by the likes of Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Benjamin Franklin, and King Louis XIV, along with some of the most inventive literary characters in modern fiction.
Audible’s complete and unabridged presentation of The Baroque Cycle was produced in cooperation with Neal Stephenson. Each volume includes an exclusive introduction read by the author.
Listen to more titles in the Baroque Cycle.
©2004 Neal Stephenson (P)2010 Audible, Inc.
“Self-indulgent ambition disguised as historical fiction was never this much fun—or this successful.” (Entertainment Weekly)
“Stands out as a masterwork of time, place, and people.” (Library Journal)
With two left to go, this one has been the most fun. There's a lot less of courtly politics and a lot more outrageous fun. It's all quite a bit over the top and ends with the punch line of what has to be the longest shaggy dog joke in literature. My feeling all along with this series is that Stephenson may be the most arrogant writer I've ever come across and he writes these huge checks with his ego -- then he manages to cash them and we all have a good time. I guess if you have the chops, you can be arrogant like that.
Each book in this series just gets better and better. That is saying something since I gave the first book four stars and the middle one five stars. Others have summarized the plot and sidewindings of the book better than I could, so I will limit this review to two things. 1) The narrator of the audio book, Simon Prebble, is the perfect match for the material, and I highly suspect listening is the BEST way to experience the Baroque Cycle. 2) Neal Stephenson’s writing is simply unequaled. Below is just one quote to exemplify why I say this.
"If you were strolling in the gardens of Versailles you might one day hear sudden noises and turn around to see, some distance away, one fellow, let’s call him Arnault, going after another, call him Blaise, with a drawn blade, from which, if you were a careless observer, you might think that Arno had just snapped without warning, like an ice-covered bough falling from the tree. But in truth, the Arnaults of the world were rarely so reckless. A careful observer watching Arnault for two or three minutes prior to the onset of violence would see some sort of exchange between him and Blaise, a calculated insult from Blaise, let us say, such as a refusal to let Arnault through a door ahead of him, or a witticism about Arnault’s wig which had been so very fashionable three months ago. If Blaise were a polished wit, he would then move on, blithe, humming an air, and giving every appearance of forgetting the event. But Arnault would become a living exhibit, symptoms would set in that were so obvious and dramatic as to furnish a topic of study for the Royal Society. Why, a whole jury of English savants could stand around poor Arnault with their magnifying lenses and their notebooks, observing the changes in his physiognomy, noting them down in Latin, and rendering them in labored woodcuts. Most of these symptoms had to do with the humor of passion. For a few moments, Arnault would stand fast, as the insult sank in. His face would turn red as the vessels in his skin went flaccid and consequently ballooned with blood from a heart that had begun to pound like a Turkish kettle drum signaling the onset of battle. But this was not when the attack came, because Arnault during this stage was physically unable to move. All of his activity was mental. Once he got over the first shock, Arnault’s first thought would be to convince himself that he had reigned in his emotions now, got himself under control, was ready to consider matters judiciously. The next few minutes, then, would be devoted to a rehearsal of the recent encounter with Blaise. Affecting a rational, methodical approach, Arnault would marshal whatever evidence he might need to convict Blaise of being a scoundrel, and sentence him to death. After that, the attack would not be long in following, but to one who had not been there with the fellows of the Royal Society to observe all that had led up to it, it would seem like the spontaneous explosion of an infernal device."
Increasing my ops tempo by allowing storytellers to whisper in my ear(buds).
This series must be contemplated as a unified whole. This review is for the entire BAROQUE CYCLE.
Sorry Neal, I was wrong. For me Neal Stephenson was a bit of an acquired taste. My first Stephenson exposure was with SNOWCRASH, a zany over-the-top Sci-Fi farce with quirky characters, tight plotting and fascinating ideas—try an ancient software virus in the human brain. My next Neal Stephenson encounter was THE DIAMOND AGE and this was for years my last. It was not until revisiting SNOWCRASH now as an audiobook (narrated by the superb Jonathan Davis) that I realized that anyone able to reach such dizzying fictional heights once deserves more than one strike. It was after this that I listened to ANATHEM; strike two. But there was one more title that had received acclaim that I first had to tackle before relegating Stephenson to one-hit-wonder status: CRYPTONOMICON. This was a home run; different from SNOWCRASH in almost every way but still wonderful, and really long. From this I learned three things: (1) Stephenson was not easy to pigeon-hole; and (2) He could handle fictional works in the long form; and (3) If you are not preoccupied with plot advancement, the rabbit trails can be quite scenic. So, once I learned that many of the characters in CRYPTONOMICON had ancestors in THE BAROQUE CYCLE, I determined to tackle the whole lot back-to-back, as if it were one giant novel. QUICKSILVER is the first audio installment of THE BAROQUE CYCLE, which is here divided into seven installments. In print form it is broken into eight books published in three hefty volumes.
I could tell from the comments of other listeners that this huge tome is not for everyone. If you require fast tight plotting, this may not be for you. If you enjoy witty repartee between vagabonds, kings, courtiers and thieves then this may be the mother lode. I liken Neal Stephenson to Gene Wolfe; another writer who can keep my interest just by the brilliance of his prose. It was in the middle of ODALISQUE, book three in the cycle, that I realized I didn’t much care that the plot was just creeping along, and that side trips to follow the numerous cast of characters kept taking me away from the one I liked best. I was enjoying the show and didn’t want it to end. This is truly not seven different novels, but one huge novel tied together by recurring characters and one vast and very satisfying story arc.
This accomplishment by Neal Stevenson is just the thing that the term magnum opus was coined for. Mr. Stevenson demonstrates his ability to manage a vast narrative alternate history and retains his focus over two-thousand six-hundred eighty-eight hardcover pages, through one-hundred fourteen hours of audiobook narration; yet the feel and texture and pacing is consistent throughout the entire work. Amazing. If you decide to tackle this tome you will be rewarded. It may cause you to rethink the whole audiobook medium.
I really enjoyed Stephenson’s insights into the politics of the scientific community, revolving around Isaac Newton. The fusing of Natural Philosophy (science), Alchemy, commodity-based monetary theory, rags-to-riches character transformations, and court intrigue make for a fascinating experience. Listening to this series is like taking a time-travel vacation to the eighteenth century. The shabby, muddy, miasmic grunge of the period’s living conditions sometimes remind me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, with associated punch-lines. This is a very different world from the one we live in but I began to think I might understand it a little better and found that, in some ways, it might not be so bad.
If you are at all interested in free-market economics, and commodity-based monetary theory then one of the long-term story arcs will be of intense interest to you. Stevenson explores the impact of the foundation of the central Bank of England upon the flow of gold. And his deft insertion of an Alchemical component into the mix creates an enjoyable element of mystery. This is the storyline that required one-hundred hours to tell.
This is a Science Fiction work because the alternate-history angle with Alchemy infecting the realm of science will appeal to the SF fan. If you were provided with a plot outline or given some character sketches you may think this an historical novel, and it could be read from that perspective. But Science Fiction readers don’t as a rule read historical novels, but they will read this, therefore, whatever qualities it possesses, justify the SF label.
—PERSISTENT THEMES OF THE BAROQUE CYCLE—
Predestination versus Free-Will is on everyone’s mind
The debate between Protestantism versus Catholicism had a huge political impact
Geocentrism versus Heliocentrism is the only thing everyone can agree upon
Commodity-based Monetary theory makes the world work
Court Intrigue and witty conversations provide joy in every circumstance
Meritocracy rags-to-riches stories abound
People can endure much if they have hope
Vagabond underworld versus Persons of Quality show we have much in common
Alchemy counterpoised with Natural Philosophy revel the nature of science
Encryption and secret writing have long been employed
True love makes life worth living
Courtly liaisons show the shallowness of the ruling class to whom society is entrusted
Simon Prebble does yeoman’s work on this production. To my ear he nailed every single pronunciation of every word in the course of over one-hundred hours of narration—no mean feat. His character voicings are subtle but immediately recognizable. His talent allows him to even give convincing alternate pronunciations of words to the different characters that are appropriate to their individual personalities. The more foppish English characters habitually emphasize different syllables than the lower class characters. Despite the deep quality of his voice Simon Prebble handles both male and female character voices convincingly. His voice has a limited range but I was constantly amazed at how he could make subtle alterations in inflection, diction and pacing to effectively distinguish the various characters in a conversation. Simon Prebble achieves the desirable state of occupying the place in your head usually reserved for your own internal sub-vocalizations when you are reading a print book to yourself. This is a high achievement indeed and makes this a soothing book experience.
Narrated by Simon Prebble (Main text)
Kevin Pariseau (Chapter epigraphs)
Neal Stephenson (Introduction)
Checking out Brandon Sanderson's work
This was a quick read covering some interesting tales with all the favorite characters. I did feel the author got a bit distracted in this book. While the story carries well, the historical side kind of wanders and is hard to keep track of.
The reader was great - I am constantly laughing at some of Jack's antics. Worth the read.
Stephenson's writing is voluminous and - to be honest - full of extraneous details and side-trips. I happen to LOVE the side trips and enjoy every minute of the stories. He can be a little graphic in rubbing your nose in the dirty details of life in 17th and 18th Century Europe, but I can forgive that as it is surrounded by such delightful characters, deeply intertwined story threads, and magnificently crafted surprise twists.
If you're a smart person who loves complex and rich storytelling, you will love this entire epic series of books. The performances in the audiobooks are astoundingly good.
I'm a professor at the Haas School of Business, UC Berkeley. I love reading (and listening) to pieces about military history.
While I enjoyed listening to the piece, particularly the random digressions about English heraldry, the origin of the word coin, and other such tidbits, I was really annoyed by the ending of the book, or rather the lack of an ending. I understand this is part of an apparently never-ending cycle of books, but is it too much to ask that at least some of the plot lines be resolved at the end of the book? Moreover, based on the opening of the book, which was rather lackluster, I worry that even when a resolution comes, it won't be all that satisfying.
The body of the novel was interesting, if meandering. There are many characters flitting in and out, usually with no particular announcement of their connection with the rest of the story. Eventually, the connection becomes evident but patience is required from the listener to follow along the journey without any clear idea as to where you are or where you are going. I suspect that if I relisten, knowing now how the characters are connected, I would discern a fair bit of foreshadowing and other elements that are missed,
There is a great deal of erudition and research that went into the piece. Mostly, this emerges in a natural way though sometimes the plot veers artificially into scenes that are merely there to illustrate some aspect of English life in the early 18th century but not advancing the plot at all. For instance, the bear-baiting scene, while somewhat interesting, is a pure detour as are the early scenes in Dartmoor about using tin to make coins and a steam engine to extract the water from the flooded tin mines. These scenes seemed more about demonstrating the author's research than connecting naturally to the plot. (I might be wrong about the tin mines. It seems possible that this issue will be returned to in some future book in the cycle.)
The voice performance of the principal reader was excellent. He's able to pull off a wide range of accents and inflections which helped to flesh out the characters in the mind's eye. Some of these, like the full-on Scottish brogue of one of the characters, are difficulty to do convincingly.
Bottom line: Atmosphere = A, Vocal performance = A+, Plot = B+, Resolution = F
Neal seems to be most interested in producing a period tale that richly honors the mores of the time. In some ways the story seems to be incidental to Neal's historical descriptions. My favorite elements of the Baroque Cycle and this book included are how well he has produced a window into the culture and society of the past.
The narrator's performance is excellent in that he enables the listener to keep track of the many characters.
Putting books on the back burner.
I've been listening to Simon Prebble for nearly 87 hours and his performance is Baroque Cycle has been fantastic. I'm really glad that Audible got a top notch narrator and maybe that's why I'm enjoying this series so much. In the sixth installment, "Solomon’s Gold" is something that I was looking forward to because it explained more about the monetary system, but the story fell short for my liking.
Remind you, I just finished and wrote the review for "The Confusion" just a few days ago and maybe my mind is still on pirates, but for some reason, I thought that "Solomon’s Gold" is the weaker of the set so far. The tale was very erratic on most parts of the book. I need to remember that this is the first part of the last volume and there are two more books to go. My expectation was very high after coming off from "Bonanza" and "The Juncto."
I don't think that I'm loosing steam in the Baroque Cycle and cannot wait to complete the entire series. Maybe Simon Prebble is starting to annoy me. His Scottish accent for one of the characters is not so great. Probably downright awful from his overall performance.
"Solomon’s Gold" should had been the strongest chapters, but it fell short. I just wanted to know more about Quicksilver and how banking got started, but the story was all over the map and didn't hit the target, unlike the other books.
The book is still very good with a few exclusions.
Daniel has re-entered the story as a main character, after many years of quiet life in Boston, starting the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which he assumes will fail as everyone believes it to be a joke (Ha ha).
Jack is in possession of a rather unusual ship. And Eliza is still treading deep waters in royal politics.
Highly detailed, and sometimes slow moving, the entire story will span over 50 years, the reign of many different kings and queens across europe, several trips to America and back, pirates, african queens, and the Philosopher's Stone. Well worth slogging through the slow points to find out what happens in the end.
"London for the imaginary tourist"
I finished this part of Stephenson's epic reluctantly; at a mere 3000 pages this book is not nearly long enough for my taste. So I am pausing to research the background. This part is set entirely in London, ten years since the last part ended and a new world- Daniel Waterhouse has returned from America and it came as a shock to realise that the last 2000 pages have been a flash-back from the sea journey that was described at the very beginning of the book. And what has Jack been up to all this time, apart from growing old? A gripping tale unfolds which keeps me guessing while Stephenson takes me on a sightseeing tour of historic London; and I am inspired to venture out to the city on a cold November Sunday and explore these places anew through the eyes of his extraordinary imagination. And yes, as far as I can tell, his geography is accurate in every detail. I don't want this story to end and there are only two more audiobooks to go.
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