John Giuffo
October 01, 2004 AT 04:00 AM EDT

The year is 1714, and a saboteur is loose in London, wreaking havoc by polluting the purity of England’s coinage through a deft application of swordplay and political intrigue. Infernal Devices (time bombs, as we’d call them) have repeatedly come close to incinerating the Crown’s indispensable Mint caretaker, Sir Isaac Newton, threatening to end his decades-long dispute with his primary scientific (Natural Philosophic, as they’d call it) rival, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz; this would have the handy side effect of boosting Leibniz’s ally, a princess named Caroline, to the disputed British throne. And somewhere behind it all lie the machinations of the mysterious Enoch Root and the mischievous Jack Shaftoe.

Neal Stephenson spent nearly 2,000 pages setting his convergent plots into motion in The System of the World, and they all collide brilliantly in the third and final installment of his Baroque Cycle. Not content to let 1999’s Cryptonomicon be his last word on the nexus of code making, profit, war, and technology, Stephenson digs 300 years into the past to explore the roots of his themes. As before, he crafts impossibly long passages filled with baroque (more rococo here, befitting the shift in emphasis taking place at the time) descriptions of manners, fashion, and architecture, and intersperses them with intense bouts of savage violence, all the while retaining his trademark pomo-cum-geeky humor (‘We came up to take in the view… and never expected the Spanish Inquisition’). Self-indulgent ambition disguised as historical fiction was never this much fun?or this successful.

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