This is the third book in the eight-book Baroque Cycle, and also the third part of the first volume. So it involves a fair amount of tying together seThis is the third book in the eight-book Baroque Cycle, and also the third part of the first volume. So it involves a fair amount of tying together separate characters and story arcs introduced in the first two books, Quicksilver and King of the Vagabonds, which is mostly accomplished by having Eliza meet up with Daniel Waterhouse in England. (Jack Shaftoe does not appear at all in this book, though he is alluded to a few times by other characters. His brother, Bob, does make an appearance near the end, introducing a story arc of his own that intersects with those of Eliza and Daniel.)
Structurally, this book follows the latter part of King of the Vagabonds in switching back and forth between two geographically distant characters' points of view. Where in the second book it was Eliza and Jack, here it is Eliza and Daniel, who are much more similar in temperament and habit --- both are smart, cautious characters who observe, plan, and then act, rather than heedlessly throwing themselves into the thick of things. This makes for more suspense, and more sense that each narrative is building toward something, as opposed to just listing along from one episode to the next. But it also makes for fewer entertaining incidents, so if you really liked Jack's part of the last book, you might find yourself bored by this one.
Eliza by now is ensconced in King Louis IV's court at Versailles, where she has a sponsor of sort, the comte d'Avaux, whom she met in the previous book and who has gotten her a position as governess to the children of some noblewoman. That's only a pretext for her to be at Versailles, though, where she has several more important roles she keeps shrouded in varying degrees of secrecy. Nearest to the surface, she acts as personal finance manager to practically the entire court, most of whose members are nearing bankruptcy trying to maintain their households and wardrobes at a suitable level of opulence. Known to fewer people, she corresponds with d'Avaux, keeping him updated on what goes on at court; she also corresponds with the Natural Philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, who has published his calculus. She uses a couple of different codes to write her letters; the letters she writes to d'Avaux are written in a simpler code that she anticipates will be broken by Dutch spies, who are her real audience for those missives. (D'Avaux, it was revealed in the last book, is working to undermine King Louis, but is not pro-Dutch either. I'm not 100% sure how much his agenda and Eliza's overlap, though I don't THINK he knows the Dutch are reading his correspondence ...) Anyway, at the highest level of secrecy, she's spying for William, the Prince of Orange, who intends to seize power in England.
And, reading that paragraph, you will start to see why I don't like the title of this installment in the Baroque Cycle. An odalisque is a woman whose defining feature is her idleness; she's kept by others to be idle, and beautiful, for them. Eliza, who has to be the one the title refers to, is dizzyingly active ALL THE TIME, simultaneously doing two or three incredibly difficult things, and making sure no one sees her doing them, at any given time. Stephenson might well have chosen the title ironically; that's the only way I can see it making any sense.
I mentioned that Daniel Waterhouse comes back into play in this book; he does, and when we meet him he has come into his own as a political power player. He's still a Fellow of the Royal Society, but he doesn't conduct any research of his own. Instead, he hangs around King James II's dwindling court, watching his doctors try to treat his advanced syphilis and talking with other people about what's going to happen next. He intercedes on behalf of his fellow Puritans, getting them released from jail whenever they get rounded up on suspicion of fomenting another rebellion (remember that in the first book, Daniel's father Drake was instrumental in bringing Oliver Cromwell to power, and was rewarded for this by having his head cut off once Charles II was restored to the throne). While he's watching and waiting, the Glorious Revolution happens around him. He knows he has played some role in bringing it about, but he mostly just wanders around dazed once it actually starts unfolding. Mostly, he tries to keep an eye on his friend Isaac Newton, who is going off the deep end, abandoning physics for some sort of esoteric metaphysics. His parts of the book, especially compared to Eliza's and especially toward the end, are anticlimactic. ...more
A couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and evA couple years went by between my reading the first book in this series and getting my hands on the second, but given how little the characters and events in this book overlap with the first, it really doesn't matter.
Where the first book followed Daniel Waterhouse, Natural Philosopher and scion of a staunch, politically active Puritan family, and took place mostly in England, this book follows "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe (whose nickname refers as much to an anatomical peculiarity of his as it does to his spontaneous and intemperate disposition) and a mysterious, beautiful and very clever woman named Eliza, and takes place mostly on the European continent.
It also has much less of an emphasis on 17th-century science than the first book, delving more into that era's political and economic developments. (Indeed, so much of the action of this book revolves around schemes relating to the buying and selling of shares of stock that I was both bored and somewhat confused for long stretches in the middle. Finance is like intellectual Kryptonite to me; can't understand it, have zero interest in understanding it.)
Anyway, the characters. Half-Cocked Jack sounds like someone took the most dramatic, colorful elements from Dickens (Jack's motherless childhood with his brother Bob, earning money hanging onto condemned men's legs as they swung from the gallows, ensuring a somewhat quicker death), Hunter S. Thompson (Jack is slowly losing his mind to syphilis, and as his side of the story progresses he becomes increasingly prone to vivid hallucinations which he cannot distinguish from reality), Jonathan Swift (in the frankly scatological descriptions of the kind of life Jack leads - hygiene is apparently a luxury a 17th-century Vagabond learns to do without), John Kennedy Toole and Gary Shteyngart (Jack's lewdness, sensuality and his knack for accidental heroism), and blended them all together in a single character. The actual experience of reading about this character's adventures is only slightly less awesome than whatever you've conjured up in your head while reading the previous sentence; the only problem is that they're so disjointed and episodic there's no sense of narrative momentum, just one damn thing after another.
The other main character is Eliza, a beautiful woman Jack rescues from a Turkish army camp during one of his brief spells of soldiering. When she first appeared, I wasn't sure I'd like her: her first interaction with Jack is a strained, eyeroll-inducing stretch of sexualized banter revolving around the tired, ages-old "battle of the sexes" scenario: the man has every kind of power imaginable over the woman, but because he desires her, that somehow evens the scales, or even secretly gives her the upper hand. Whatever. But luckily, Eliza is more than that: she's incredibly clever and a gifted storyteller, spinning tall tales that captivate Jack, who has lived more tall tales than most people have even heard. Like Scheherazade, she doles out portions of her life story (how she came to be a slave in a Turkish officer's tent, for instance, when she is a European woman who speaks English) strategically to make sure Jack keeps her with him long enough for her to get where she wants to go, which is Amsterdam.
Once Eliza gets to Amsterdam, she and Jack split up; she stays put, hoping to get in on the expanding mercantile economy and getting swept up in a scheme involving shares in a silver mine somewhere in the mountains of Germany, which gets her running in such high-rolling circles that she runs into a couple of lordly types who seize the opportunity to use her to further their various political intrigues. Her story gets more and more interesting and suspenseful as the stakes of her game rise and the rules get more complex; Jack's, on the other hand, seems to lose steam once he parts company with her. He continues to wander around Europe, with some vague notions of selling the fine warhorse and other loot he picked up in Turkey and thereby financing x more years of Vagabond life, and maybe also leaving something for his children. (He's never met them, but he knows he has some). He goes from place to place, stuff happens to him, he is increasingly unable to distinguish what's really happening from his hallucinations, which tend to resemble Elizabethan morality plays. It's all fairly anticlimactic, even though there are a couple of really awesome episodes. The book seems arbitrarily cut off at the end, for both of them, though. Eliza's arc in particular still seems to be building toward a future climax when the narrative ends and the (very long) section cataloguing the Dramatis Personae begins....more
Amazingly informative without being dry or really dense. Klein draws an analogy between the state of shock that severely traumatized individuals enterAmazingly informative without being dry or really dense. Klein draws an analogy between the state of shock that severely traumatized individuals enter and the power vacuum that opens up when a whole country has been traumatized, by a war, an economic crisis or a natural disaster. She chronicles how a lot of poor nations in such straits have been exploited by American interests, and how those American interests gradually changed their strategy from one of opportunistic scavenging to one of actively bringing on the disasters they would later seek to profit from.
Crucial for understanding the death spiral deregulated capitalism has entered in recent years....more