Daniel Waterhouse finds himself embroiled in a dark conflict that has been raging in the shadows for decades. It is a secret war between the brilliant, enigmatic Master of the Mint (and closet alchemist) Isaac Newton and his archnemesis, the insidious counterfeiter Jack the Coiner, a.k.a. Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds. Hostilities are suddenly moving to a new and more volatile level, as Jack plots a daring assault on the Tower of London itself, aiming for nothing less than the total corruption of Britain’s newborn monetary system.
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.
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©2004 Neal Stephenson (P)2010 Audible, Inc.
“[Stephenson is] a know-it-all and a show-off, no doubt about it, but he gets away with the lectures, digressions and excruciatingly cataloged details because he is so damn funny and inventive.” (San Francisco Chronicle)
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"Imp of the Perverse Embodied in Brilliant Fiction"
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)
"Very Keen Indeed!"
Stephenson does it yet again! I appreciate how this series captured my interest with the first book and each subsequent book adds a new layer of intrigue. I've learned more about 17th Century Europe from Neal Stephenson than in four years of High School, and thoroughly enjoyed it in the process! I can't wait to tackle the final book.
"Hard to believe, but each book gets better!"
I loved, loved, loved this installment in the Baroque cycle. Action, intrigue, science, royal succession, Jesuits, slavery, the creation of money, alchemy . . . this book has it all. It is nearly impossible to categorize this series of novels except to say that they are unlike any other books I have ever listened to. I can’t wait to listen to the final installment. The writing is phenomenal. One of the things I absolutely love is the way Stephenson describes people. Here are three quotes displaying this talent.
"These women stared out from the canvases with arched brows, enormous eyes and tiny mouths, seeing much, and saying little."
"He is flitting and hopping about in the lobby like a sparrow whose nest had just been blown down in a windstorm."
"[The thief-taker] was conspicuous by his age, I should estimate he is in his middle fifties, and by a bearing, I am tempted to call it dignity, wanting in the others. He has a good head of hair, only a bit thin on top, blond going grey, and sea green eyes. He has an excellently carved set of teeth, but displays them rarely. He has a trim figure, unusual in a profession that consists largely of loitering around taverns, but any illusion that he is especially fit is dispelled when he begins to move, for he is a little bit halt, and a little bit lame, stiff in the joints and given to frequent sighs and grimaces that hint at pains internal."
Cannot leave off saying the audio performance by Simon Prebble is outstanding. He gives each character a distinct voice to the point where I can listen to bookmarks I made several days ago and immediately know which character is speaking. Simply an amazing performance. I can't imagine having read these books, his performance brings out all the humor and nuance.
After finishing "Solomon’s Gold", I was excited to get through the "Currency." I was suspecting that the story would pick up in the second book in the last volume. For anyone that has been invested in the Baroque Cycle thus far, there is an instinct trait of Neal Stephenson's writing. Depending on the tempo of the setting, his style can be slow and fast. Unlike other authors, Stephenson let the reader decide on what pace to read these books.
For example, the Baroque Cycle could be considered as a soap opera with Eliza, or a history lesson of the 18th century with Newton and the Towers of London, or an action pack adventure with Jack the Coiner. However you interpret the Baroque's society, you are never disappointed on the outcome. His writing style is not like a bull, charging the gate. His style is more of a turtle morphing into a rabbit.
As for "Currency", I thought that the series reached its climax by going into more in depth in the gold plates and the Bank of England. I've been looking forward to this ever since the definition of Quicksilver. Although I really enjoyed the constant cat and mouse game between Newton and Jack, I was ecstatic to learn more about the financial system and the building of the towers.
There are so many elements in this series, but if you decide to focus on one of it and see it through the end, all of the notes will come together in the Baroque Cycle.
"It's a wonder we're here at all."
My main commentary is on the last (System of the World) part of this amazing eight part epic. Can't say enough about how much fun it was.
"An epic story about the turn of the 18th century."
Here, the stories all finally start to come together and make a bit of sense again. We follow our characters as they begin to make major changes in the world around them. We see the birth of "money" as a standardized system. Anyone with an interest in economics will definitely enjoy this portion of the story, but there's still plenty of adventure in there for the rest of us.
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.
"the story continues to unfold with humor and whit"
a great saga...! the momentum continues in this adventurous and witty book! any reader of the earlier books will thoroughly enjoy this next segment.
This is one of the better books in the series focusing at how currency came to be the source of the English economy rather then just coin. The book does a great job providing a fun adventure story through the streets of London and Europe while educating one on the politics of the time.
The reader is great and really brings out the characters - even to the changing age of the characters. Really good read.
"Fact or Fiction?"
In this part of Stephenson's epic we continue our tour of historic London, visiting places as diverse as Parliament, Newgate Prison, Bedlam and the Bank of England; while a complex plot of mystery and intrigue unfolds. A sort of Conan Doyle meets Alexander Dumas.
I've taken to going on long walks in Richmond Park with my audio player. This way I can listen for hours on end without any loss of concentration. A really long novel, full of local colour and historical detail, with a complex and exciting plot, is what I require for this. Forget HD 3D movies on TV- this is the true immersive experience because the spoken novel engages the imagination on another level entirely.
For six months now I have been suspended between two worlds and at times I feel unsure as to where I am- I have to remind myself that the year is 2010 and not 1714, and that this is a work of fiction and not history. Now I am unsure- was the long anticipated meeting of Newton and Leibniz cut short by the passage of a harpoon thrown at Peter the Great, Tzar of Russia, in a tavern in Hockley?
Is the Bank of England build on the site of a Roman temple dedicted to Mithras?
And is there really a secret passage from the cellars of the Bank to the Church of St Stephen Walbrook?
And did Daniel Waterhouse build the logic machine (aka computer) with the help of whores in Newgate Prison, and to drive it, finance the first steam engine?
And on the streets of London, was a civil war narrowly averted with the help of Jack's gold?
"Fact and fiction seamlessly interwoven"
The Baroque Cycle is excellent from start to finish but this particular book is my favourite because of the way so many characters and plot strands are brought together. Don't worry if you haven't listened to all the other books in the series - you can start with this one and enjoy it as the stand-alone masterpiece it is.
The interaction between fictional character of Daniel Waterhouse and real characters like Sir Isaac Newton make this story feel well-grounded in the period. The detailed descriptions of London life are intriguing too, especially as many of the places referenced are still present in the London of today.
The narrator clearly separates the many characters with excellent voicing that helps make this complex story easy to follow. It's the best narration of all the many books I've listened to on Audible.
Whilst taking a long series of flights I came close to listening to this book in a single sitting.
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