Friday, August 28, 2009

My favorite book, EVER.

...well, it's three books, collectively called the Baroque Cycle.
I can't even begin to describe this epic, three-volume, genre-bending story.
Somehow, Neal Stephenson manages to blend the birth of the scientific revolution, the birth of capitalism, and swashbuckling action into a massive, multi-faceted, intricate tapestry. It's actually six novels, interwoven across three volumes.
The story follows several major characters. One is Daniel Waterhouse, a roommate of Isaac Newton's, who participates in some of of Newton's major discoveries and who witnesses Newton's long-running conflict with the German mathematician Leibniz over who invented calculus. Sound boring? It's not! Waterhouse is also present for early attempts to invent computers, sceintific intrigue and competition that involves Edward Teach (Blackbeard) of all people, and various fires, plagues, and revolutions. Interwoven into Waterhouse's story is the tale of two rogues - "Half-Cocked" Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds (perhaps my favorite fictional character ever), and Eliza, a girl he rescues from a sultan's harem. They range across Europe, tangling with witches, insane French nobles, slavers, and pirates with a penchant for anal rape (quote: "Good Lord, that's an apocalyptic buggering!"). Eliza, much brighter than most of the men in the story, manages to almost single-handedly create our modern capitalist system, while Jack - unable to consummate his love for her due to an unfortunate injury that gives him his nickname - does his best to protect her. Shaftoe also becomes embroiled in a quest for King Solomon's gold, which brings him into the same sphere as Newton, who believes Solomonic gold has semi-mystical properties. The story never quite enters full-on fantasy territory, but it flirts with the fantastic at every step. Again, there is so MUCH of this story that it's difficult to summarize - all I can say is trust me: this is great stuff.

One aspect of the story that is vaguely fantastic is the character Enoch Root, who appears on and off throughout the tale at times of crisis. This is not all that strange, in and of itself. But in Stephenson's previous book, Cryptonomicon (a story about codebreakers in WWII interwoven with stories of computer nerds and underwater salvage - yeah, you kinda have to read it), Enoch Root is also a character. So, seemingly, this guy is immortal, and is equated with the Biblical Enoch. This is never heavy-handed or religious, and the signficance of the Enoch Root character isn't quite clear. He does seem to be connected with Solomonic gold, which is also featured in Cryptonomicon (the characters in Cryptonomicon have the surnames Waterhouse and Shaftoe, indicating they are descendants of the characters in the Baroque Cycle).

Stephenson is probably my favorite writer, and I'm about a fourth of the way through his latest novel, Anathem (a play on words between "anthem" and "anathema"). More blatantly sci-fi, it's quickly shaping up to be every bit as good as the Baroque Cycle or Cryptonomicon. Stephenson's earlier books like Snow Crash are pretty much standard cyberpunk fare. With the Baroque Cycle, he took a quantum leap forward, creating the most intricate, complex, fun-to-read novel I have EVER read. EVER. Do yourself a favor and check it out.

The return of English magic!

How does a virtually uknown (and rather hot) British chick rattle off a 700+ page debut novel and manage to win the prestigious Hugo Award (the Oscars of scifi/fantasy) on her first effort?
Who knows. But I do know that Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke, absolutely blew me away on every page. I didn't even know it had won the Hugo until well after I'd read this, and I'm glad it got the recognition it deserves.
Most fantasy novels are set in other worlds. Clarke has created an alternate Europe of the early 1800s, where magic was once real, but now forgotten. Then come two rival magicians (the title characters), who each have a very different view of how magic works. Exploding onto the London scene, they do everything from animate statues to wake the dead to help Wellington by giving Napoleon bad dreams. Their rivalry, and eventual partnership, spans hundreds of pages of absolutely charming and witty writing. You know all those girly Jane Austen novels they turn into Gwyneth Paltrow movies? Well, pretend those were all fantasy novels, and you begin to get some idea of how this story "feels." One thing I really like about the book is that it has extensive footnotes (all fake) referencing supposed tomes of magic and historical works. At times cute, at times truly scary (especially when dealing with the ancient magic of the mysterious Raven King), this is a great novel for anyone who appreicates wit and imagination.

If you like Gonen's World...'ll love "The Court of the Air," by Stephen Hunt.
This story - the first of a trilogy - takes place on a world not unlike our own, although whether it's an alternate history or a completely fantastical world is not clear. If I had to describe this genre in a word, I'd call it "steampunk." Airships, robots ("steam men"), analytical engines the size of gymnasiums, guns with glass bullets, and airships...all of that fits, right? Add to that a heavy dose of "faerie" magic of the Celt-loving-girl variety, ultra-violent mayhem, and a culture that's just weird - the king of the Kingdom of Jackals (a "hellish take on Victorian London," according to one reviewer), where most of the story takes place, must have his arms cut off upon ascending the throne, for example - and you've got all the makings of a really cool adventure. The story follows two orphaned teens - Molly Templar and Oliver - who both have mysterious backgrounds. Molly has an intuitive understanding of how the steam men and other machines work, while Oliver is blessed/cursed with a touch of the fey. Against a background of political turmoil, fast-paced action and intrigue, this is just a first-rate adventure story from start to finish. If you like that sort of thing, why not give this a read? If anyone wants to borrow it, let me know!