An incorrigible showoff, Stephenson doesn’t know when to stop, but that’s a trifle compared to his awe-inspiring ambition...

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VOL. I, THE BAROQUE CYCLE

First in a trilogy about vagabonds and alchemists in Baroque Age Europe.

You should never—never—accuse Stephenson of not doing his homework, not least because it’s not true, but also because he might then feel compelled to footnote, and then his already-sizable tomes will approach encyclopedic length. The meandering, dense narrative in this case proves one thing: he needs an editor. And that editor needs a machete. This is a thick knot of story that spans America and Europe during the late-17th and early-18th centuries. The first and final thirds concern the explosive leaps in scientific knowledge, impossibly complex political intrigue, and bitter Protestant-Catholic fighting that characterized Western Europe, especially England, during this time. These sections star Daniel Waterhouse, fledgling member of the Royal Society, a semi-secret cabal of cutting-edge scientists and alchemists, as well as learned individuals such as Samuel Pepys and Isaac Newton. Sandwiched in between is a roustabout adventure that hopscotches all over the continent, from the Turkish siege of Vienna to the burgeoning capitalist mecca of Amsterdam. Principal among these events are Jack Shaftoe (distant ancestor of a character from Cryptonomicon, 1999), a none-too-bright mercenary with a penchant for barely escaping hideous death, and the clever Eliza, rescued from a Turkish harem by Jack, and quickly set on a path of ambitious social-climbing among the French nobility. Stephenson mostly does away with plot and contents himself with letting his characters jape and amble about the place, engage in erudite, pages-long discussions on alchemy, slavery, or religion, running into fascinating people, and staging a smashing action sequence every now and again to keep everyone awake.

An incorrigible showoff, Stephenson doesn’t know when to stop, but that’s a trifle compared to his awe-inspiring ambition and cheeky sense of humor.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2003

ISBN: 0-380-97742-7

Page Count: 944

Publisher: Morrow/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: June 24, 2010

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2003

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Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

CILKA'S JOURNEY

In this follow-up to the widely read The Tattooist of Auschwitz (2018), a young concentration camp survivor is sentenced to 15 years’ hard labor in a Russian gulag.

The novel begins with the liberation of Auschwitz by Soviet troops in 1945. In the camp, 16-year-old Cecilia "Cilka" Klein—one of the Jewish prisoners introduced in Tattooist—was forced to become the mistress of two Nazi commandants. The Russians accuse her of collaborating—they also think she might be a spy—and send her to the Vorkuta Gulag in Siberia. There, another nightmarish scenario unfolds: Cilka, now 18, and the other women in her hut are routinely raped at night by criminal-class prisoners with special “privileges”; by day, the near-starving women haul coal from the local mines in frigid weather. The narrative is intercut with Cilka’s grim memories of Auschwitz as well as her happier recollections of life with her parents and sister before the war. At Vorkuta, her lot improves when she starts work as a nurse trainee at the camp hospital under the supervision of a sympathetic woman doctor who tries to protect her. Cilka also begins to feel the stirrings of romantic love for Alexandr, a fellow prisoner. Though believing she is cursed, Cilka shows great courage and fortitude throughout: Indeed, her ability to endure trauma—as well her heroism in ministering to the sick and wounded—almost defies credulity. The novel is ostensibly based on a true story, but a central element in the book—Cilka’s sexual relationship with the SS officers—has been challenged by the Auschwitz Memorial Research Center and by the real Cilka’s stepson, who says it is false. As in Tattooist, the writing itself is workmanlike at best and often overwrought.

Though gripping, even moving at times, the novel doesn’t do justice to the solemn history from which it is drawn.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-26570-8

Page Count: 352

Publisher: St. Martin's

Review Posted Online: Oct. 28, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2019

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If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be...

LOVECRAFT COUNTRY

Some very nice, very smart African-Americans are plunged into netherworlds of malevolent sorcery in the waning days of Jim Crow—as if Jim Crow alone wasn’t enough of a curse to begin with.

In the northern U.S. of the mid-1950s, as depicted in this merrily macabre pastiche by Ruff (The Mirage, 2012, etc.), Driving While Black is an even more perilous proposition than it is now. Ask Atticus Turner, an African-American Korean War veteran and science-fiction buff, who is compelled to face an all-too-customary gauntlet of racist highway patrolmen and hostile white roadside hamlets en route from his South Side Chicago home to a remote Massachusetts village in search of his curmudgeonly father, Montrose, who was lured away by a young white “sharp dresser” driving a silver Cadillac with tinted windows. At least Atticus isn’t alone; his uncle George, who puts out annual editions of The Safe Negro Travel Guide, is splitting driving duties in his Packard station wagon “with inlaid birch trim and side paneling.” Also along for the ride is Atticus’ childhood friend Letitia Dandridge, another sci-fi fan, whose family lived in the same neighborhood as the Turners. It turns out this road trip is merely the beginning of a series of bizarre chimerical adventures ensnaring both the Turner and Dandridge clans in ancient rituals, arcane magical texts, alternate universes, and transmogrifying potions, all of which bears some resemblance to the supernatural visions of H.P. Lovecraft and other gothic dream makers of the past. Ruff’s ripping yarns often pile on contrivances and overextend the narratives in the grand manner of pulp storytelling, but the reinvented mythos here seems to have aroused in him a newfound empathy and engagement with his characters.

If nothing else, you have to giggle over how this novel’s namesake, who held vicious white supremacist opinions, must be doing triple axels in his grave at the way his imagination has been so impudently shaken and stirred.

Pub Date: Feb. 16, 2016

ISBN: 978-0-06-229206-3

Page Count: 432

Publisher: Harper/HarperCollins

Review Posted Online: Nov. 4, 2015

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Nov. 15, 2015

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