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    Review of THE SYSTEM OF THE WORLD by Neal Stephenson


    William Morrow, October 2004

    Review by Jennifer Vilches (see her website)

    In 1714, Daniel Waterhouse finishes his long trip from America to England. He is prepared to mediate a vicious argument between Newton and Leibniz about who invented calculus first. But he is quickly caught up in diverse adventures: building a logic mill, sleuthing out a bomb maker, playing shell games with gold, and planning jailbreaks. Jack Shaftoe pops in here and there sowing mayhem and counterfeit coins. Eliza, the Countess de la Zeur by way of being “good with money”, continues her behind-the-scenes royal intrigues and her efforts to end slavery.

    Conflicts galore weave together into a complex tapestry: the power struggle between the Whigs and the Tories, the battle between Newton the Minter and Jack the Coiner, the feuding calculus inventors, and the clash between alchemy and science. In the end it all boils down to this: will the new system of the world be based on free markets and science? Or feudalism and alchemy?

    The third and final book in the Baroque Cycle is just as weighty as the first two. It features a quick synopsis of Quicksilver and The Confusion for those who need a refresher. Even with the summary, I wouldn't advise starting with the third book. Each of the books in the series has its own character. Quicksilver was all about set-up, so while it was rich in detail and characters, it could be slow and a bit disjointed at times. The Confusion was full of madcap adventures and the pieces just flew around the board. The System of the World wraps all of the previous threads together, and strikes a nice balance between philosophy, intrigue, and action.

    Stephenson keeps up the expected torrent of words, but as with the other two books, he keeps your attention with an iron fist of plot in a velvet glove of delightful prose. Stephenson manages to seamlessly combine serious discussions, obscure trivia, and profound silliness. As a reader, you have to pay the same attention to all, because you never know what small detail the plot is going to hang on next.

    Daniel Waterhouse is the driving character for most of this book. If you loved The Confusion because it centered on Jack and Eliza, you might be disappointed in the smaller roles they play in the third book. But if you can get past that disappointment, you will find that Daniel has evolved into a more interesting and active character than he was in Quicksilver.

    The Baroque Cycle requires a substantial investment of time and attention, but it is well worth the effort. The System of the World is a satisfying end to a great series. With Stephenson, as in life, the journey is more important than the destination, and he definitely gives you a lot of journey in the 3000-or-so page trilogy.

    See more reviews of novels by Neal Stephenson.

    Four Stars

    Reviewed 12/21/04

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