Sunday, February 19, 2012

Review of "The Confusion" by Neal Stephenson

The Confusion picks up where Quicksilver left off, the themes and characters introduced in the first volume fleshed out in more detail.  Numismatics, Alchemy, the history of European commerce, metallurgy, daily life in the world at the turn of the 18th century, and political intrigue drive their influence even deeper into the reader’s understanding of this, the second installment (or 4th and 5th, depending on perspective) of Stephenson’s epic Baroque Cycle.

Daniel Waterhouse once again appears as a focal point, and, as usual, plays the important role of acting as a window into the political, scientific, and philosophical happenings of the British nobility.  His role is far out-weighed in page time by the doings of Eliza de Zeur and Jack Shaftoe, however.  A behind the scenes wheeler and dealer, Eliza continues her devious speculation and chess moves on European markets, trying to influence the larger political and economic picture of France, Germany, Holland, and England.  While triumphing on certain occasions, she suffers irrevocable personal loss at others, the reader getting a clearer picture of the exigencies of life the people of the time – rich or poor – had to be wary of and prepared for.  Though starting as a barbary slave in the Mediterranean, Jack’s plight quickly picks up speed as he and his cabal cast off their fetters in a high risk plot to capture Spanish gold – a specific batch of gold whose progress has been carefully followed every wave across the Atlantic by not only bankers, but by some of the leading minds of the time, Sir Isaac Newton among them.  The adventures Jack and his gang subsequently become a part of take them around the world, the precocity of the gold explained without.

For those looking for more action and less table-setting, then The Confusion will be of more enjoyment than the opener Quicksilver.  Detailed expositions on a variety of subjects, including watered steel, shipbuilding, and the Inquisition still exist, however, as the scene has already been set, events and action freely spill off the pages.  “Swashbuckling” is a word used on the book’s back cover, and upon reading Jack’s exploits, it’s impossible not to agree.  Eliza too, while not wielding a blade or navigating through pirate infested waters, nevertheless finds her life not as predictable as it once was, the political games and investments she makes holding just as much risk as Jack’s.  In the end, if you’ve read Quicksilver and are interested in continuing, then The Confusion will only make you want to finish the Cycle.  And so while the book wraps itself up all too fast – half a world covered in under 200 pages – and in rather implausible fashion, readers will nevertheless be satisfied with plot progression into the final volume, System of the World.

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