The Baroque Cycle is a trilogy comprising Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of The World set between the late 17th to mid 18th Century. Politics and pirates, UK, USA and Europe, coinage and counterfeiters, alchemy and natural philosophy, gold and mercury, cryptography and computing all play a part in this colossal work by Neal Stephenson.
Each book in the trilogy has its own plot or focus, but rest assured that the “direction of travel” is always the same, no matter what meandering occurs, every twist and turn has some significance not to be ignored! This might give you an impression of complexity, and you’d be correct, because these are not some easy to read novels with a unity of storyline or a single hero moving through the decades. You will meet a central character, Daniel Waterhouse, an Englishman living in Boston, Massachusetts, who receives a letter to return to England from Princess Caroline who wants him to repair the scientific feud between Gottfried Leibnitz and Isaac Newton. Daniel is an old friend of Isaac from their university days and readily agrees before setting sail for home. However his journey is interrupted by pirates who seem determined to prevent him returning, and the tale jumps between working with the crew to thwart the pirates, going back in time to his growing friendship with Isaac Newton at Cambridge, as well as descriptions of the earlier adventures of the ship captain and crew. By the time you get to the third book in the trilogy, most of the setting is in London as Daniel and Isaac, who is now Master of The Mint, work together to foil a counterfeiting plot involving the destruction of English coinage at the behest of the King of France to bankrupt England. In each of the books the central theme is “money” represented by gold, banking, coinage and the part that the system of money plays in everything from politics to trade and more.
The trilogy is set in The Age of Enlightenment and The Scientific Revolution. Themes, events and people are accurately portrayed and described with significant parts played by Christopher Wren, Robert Boyle, Robert Hooke, Louis XIV, Charles II, William III, Benjamin Franklin, John Churchill, John Wilkins, Edward Teach and of course Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibnitz. The Fire of London and rebuilding of the city, the formation of the Royal Society and the true story of Isaac Newton outwitting the infamous counterfeiter are all woven into the trio of plots.
Thoroughly absorbing is the only way I can describe this trilogy. You need to start it prepared for the long haul because there are multiple connections between characters and events within and across each book. Be patient and you will be rewarded with having read one of the greatest pieces of literature of the 20th Century and Neal Stephenson deserves every accolade received. A single piece of personal advice: read this trilogy BEFORE you read The Cryptonomicon, another stellar work by Stephenson which goes FORWARD in time to the 20th Century where we meet the ancestors of some of the central characters in the Baroque Cycle, even though it was written first. What you learn and understand from The Baroque Cycle will stand you in good stead for The Cryptonomicon.