Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle grows streamlined in a hefty but propulsive second volume.
Building on the solid foundation that he’s already laid (Quicksilver, 2003), Stephenson provides us here with what’s actually two novels, interwoven with each other and carrying us forward from 1689 to 1702. In “The Juncto,” we follow Eliza’s ever-scheming efforts to keep her head attached to her neck while playing royal politics at Versailles, but “Bonanza” is the real treat, a rousing continuation of the adventures of the Vagabond King, the ever-stupid yet quite resourceful Jack Shaftoe. When we last left the luscious Eliza, she had nicely recovered from being rescued (by Jack) from an Ottoman harem, being named to French royalty (for services rendered). Now, she’s not only trying to raise her three children, but also operates as a crafty spy, brokering a byzantine deal involving the minting of monies in London to pay the massed French-Irish army soon to cross the Channel—to take London. The Juncto itself, a learned group that includes Leibniz and Newton, pops in from time to time to debate alchemy, theology, and abstract financial theorems—sessions that, though fascinating, are blessedly shorter than in the prior volume. Meanwhile, Jack starts out as a Mediterranean galley slave, but it’s obvious that the calling won’t last. It isn’t long before he and his impossibly diverse band of slaves (the motley band in ridiculously tough situations being a Stephenson trope) have stolen a boatload of gold and are on the run. A few rough patches aside, when the book is firing on all cylinders, as in a relentlessly funny running battle through the streets of Cairo, there’s little else out there that could hope to match it.
Packed with more derring-do than a dozen pirate films and with smarter, sparklier dialogue than a handful of Pulitzer winners, this is run-and-gun adventure fiction of the most literate kind.