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The Baroque Cycle

(Or otherwise known as when your editors are afraid of you)
Okay, it took me several years of starts and stops and starts again, but FINALLY as of this morning, I finished Neil Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle trilogy (Quicksilver, The Confusion, The System of the World), and while I was often entertained and dazzled by not only Stephenson’s writing style and wit, and his attention to detail and his historical research shine through the pages, I was left with the same general feeling I get whenever I finish any of his fiction, which is specifically he doesn’t know how to end a story. Perhaps because this 3,000 page three-tome work was so long and ponderous, the lack of a real ending was less pronounced than in other works. I almost feel as if Neil should be a writer of long-term serial fiction instead of books, as a magazine could live for years on 20-page installments of his work, and perhaps it would also force him to be more concise in his prose. I often felt ambiguous about his lengthy passages describing the historical workings of the stock market or the detailed discourses on calculus and physics. Beyond letting us know that Stephenson is very smart and very well read, I’m not sure how much exactly it contributed to the story. Given that I am personally into the same esoteric concerns that Stephenson writes about, I don’t mind all the detail all that much, and often enjoy it, but I know a great deal of others who have tried and failed at this opus precisely because he spends too much time teaching us information not germane to the main story.
All that being said, I felt that the story for the most part was excellent, and some passages shine very brightly, as fans of Stephenson have come to expect. Of the three books, the second (The Confusion) is definitely the best, and the last half of the third (The System of the World) seemed positively rushed and tepid in comparison. My advice to the prospective reader is to skim through the first 400 pages and the last 200 pages of the trilogy, and do not concern yourself too much with the myriad details of names, places, ideas, etc. that he lays before you — it’s in the end relatively unimportant, and he always catches you up. Spend your time focusing on Jack Shaftoe’s story, as that is the more engaging. Daniel Waterhouse’s tale, while important to the overall themes of the narrative, is far less impressive except as an academic exercise.
Also, if you’re a history fan, especially of the mid seventeenth to early eighteenth century, this is a very fun read. I think Stephenson captures the conflict between the medieval and the modern worlds very well.
I hope the next book he decides to write is less of a workout, because I honestly really enjoy his writing but i don’t think I have the stamina for anything of this size again any time soon.
Addendum: If you’re interested in hearing an interview w/ Neil about the trilogy, this is an interesting one.

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