Okay. Let’s not be too hasty now. After all, this novel weighs in at over 900 pages. That said, it’s still a delight. Taking place in Europe–mostly London, Amsterdam, and Paris–and in colonial Boston, in the late 17th and early 18th centuries, it’s full of characters, and I do mean full. If there aren’t hundreds of characters in the book, the number is close to that. What’s fun about this is that some of the characters are actual famous personages from the time period, such as Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke, and Liebniz. All three of these people did form the real organization called the Royal Society of London, whose doings are a central focus of the book.
The Royal Society was composed of “natural philosophers,” scientists looking to explain the world by observing it and by geometry and calculus. Among this crowd is the fictitious character Daniel Waterhouse, by origin a Quaker, whose father, Drake, was considered a radical in his day for his anti-establishment, i.e. anti-monarchist, ideas. Other main characters are the vagabond Jack Shaftoe and Eliza, a stunningly beautiful woman he rescues during a rebellion involving the Turks. The section of the book involving these two meeting and their subsequent travels together is picaresque: these two are out to make money by selling the plumes of an ostrich that was running around where Jack discovered Eliza, and their travels together are an adventure.
I had a lot of fun reading this book and look forward to reading the other two installments in the trilogy (each is also over 900 pages long). Mostly the fun lies in reading about Stephenson’s imaginings of what life was like during that time in Europe and Boston. There are so many characters that I often had to ask myself, ‘Now who is this character again?’ But that wasn’t a drawback. Stephenson draws you into the story very well with his prose, and there is a lot of humor in the tale. And it’s exciting to see the advances that Newton, Liebniz, Hooke, and the other natural philosophers make in society.