Most of you are aware that I seldom stray from the fantasy genre, at least when it comes to reading for pleasure. I do, from time to time, enjoy reading material on politics, ancient history, mythology, traveling, Law, etc. But when I wish to sit down and read for my own enjoyment, with a steaming cup of coffee beside me, it is more often than not with a fantasy book, or an occasional science fiction novel.
But there are times when the buzz generated by some authors outside those genres becomes such that it is well nigh impossible to ignore it. Such was the case last year with Dan Brown and The Da Vinci Code. It reached a certain point where I could not not read it. Hence, I read Brown's four novels and found them all quite entertaining.
Neal Stephenson's Quicksilver represents another such rare foray for me outside of the fantasy genre. This book has engendered such a vast number of rave reviews that I had to give in and finally give it a chance. And I was rewarded with a fantastic read!:-)
I would love to give you a general idea of the story, but I'm afraid that the 900+ pages which comprise this "slender" volume make it impossible to put it in a nutshell. As one review claims, «this one will defy any category, genre, precedent, or label.» Simply put, Neil Stephenson's Quicksilver is in a class of its own.
The scope of Stephenson's undertaking is staggering. To proclaim that it is an ambitous project would be insulting. The amount of research that undoubtedly went into the creation of this historical epic makes me shake my head in wonder.
What is it about? Hmmm, truth be told, it would be impossible to tell in a way that would do justice to the novel. It is about politics: the 1600s were a time or turmoil all over Europe, with many wars, revolutions, and other conflicts. It is astonishingly remarkable to see how the author depicts this era in such a richly detailed fashion. It is about history: Quicksilver contains more historical figures than most history books. It is about religion: Catholicism and Protestantism clashing all over the continent. It is about scientific breakthroughs: Newton, Hooke, Wren, Huygens, Leibniz, Locke, and so many others are part of the tale. You might have to consult wikipedia.com or another encyclopedia in order to keep track of everyone. Another one of Stephenson's tour de force is that the fine line between fact and fiction is seamless.
To say that Quicksilver is brilliant would be like stating that Harvard and Oxford are good universities. It goes beyond that. Yes, it is a dense and erudite yarn. It is also an enthralling adventure, clever and at times hilarious.
Stephenson possesses a witty sense of humor which gives this book a brazen, sometimes irreverent feel. It is so refreshing, and keeps you turning to pages to find out what happens next.
Having said all that, I don't believe that Quicksilver is as accessible as Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Enough research went into this creation to make it a scholarly work. Hence, I believe that one must at least have basic notions of that historical period, as well as an inkling of those religious conflicts, in order to truly appreciate this novel at its just value.
The characterizations are of the first order. And Stephenson's wit makes their POVs bring smirks to your lips, when you don't laugh out loud. Jack Shaftoe, "Half-Cocked Jack" (no pun intended!), brings a lot of humor, tempering the serious side of this ambitious epic with interludes of pure fun!
So by all means plunge into this historical saga. This is the sort of series that people will still be talking about in a decade. Follow the adventures of Daniel Waterhouse, thinker and Puritan, seeking knowledge among the greatest European minds of that era. Follow Jack Shaftoe's misadventures, which more or less begin when he rescues Eliza from a Turkish Harem in Vienna. And follow Eliza's own adventures, as she becomes a spy and an agent for and against the most powerful rulers and nobles of Europe.
As I mentioned before, Quicksilver is not for everyone. But love it or hate it, this book remains one thing: a work of pure genius. I will eagerly read its sequel, The Confusion. Hopefully it will live up to the hype and the standards set by its predecessor.
I would also like to use this opportunity to thank the good people at HarperCollins for graciously supplying it me with review copies of The Confusion, The System of the World, as well as a number of other books I had asked for. Many thanks to you!
I know that Quicksilver is in many people's "books to read" pile. If that is the case, please move it to the top of the pile. For everyone else, this one should be added to your "books to buy" list!;-)
The final verdict: 8.5/10