In The Confusion, the second volume of Neal Stephenson's prodigious Baroque Cycle trilogy, the world is changing, the old ways being mercilessly (and often literally) swept into the sea to make way for the new. War, science, economics — everything is different, and the confusion resulting from the con-fusion of the old and the new is leading to tumultuous times.
If Quicksilver was too daunting, too cerebral, too meandering, too plotless for a lot of readers, The Confusion is a straightforward adventure saga. Its plot is far more linear and easy to grasp, its action often breathtaking. The damn thing is simply a blast, all 815 pages of it. Stephenson here focuses on two principal characters: Eliza, the former kidnapped concubine, now risen among the French nobility to become Countess de la Zeur due to a combination of financial savvy, intellectual acumen, and sexual aggressiveness; and Jack Shaftoe, the Vagabond King, last seen in Quicksilver chained to the oars of a galley slave ship and slowly going mad from syphilis. Prominent players from Quicksilver — Daniel Waterhouse, Isaac Newton, the Royal Society, Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz — are peripheral, appearing only briefly.
Two story threads — which, as you may expect, eventually con-fuse — are divided into two interwoven novels, Bonanza and The Juncto. Bonanza is Jack's story. Slave life actually hasn't been bad to him; now in North Africa, he has survived his syphilis, all fevers have broken, and his mind is pretty much back in working order. He becomes part of a "Cabal" of fellow slaves sent on a wild mission for their Muslim masters to attack a galleon docked at the Spanish port of Bonanza, carrying loads of silver. In one of the series' most exciting set-pieces, the raid is successful, but it nets the Cabal not silver, but gold. And now the chase is on, as Jack's adventure takes him across the Mediterranean, down through Cairo (where we are treated to another brilliant action sequence as the Cabal fight their way out of the city slums), across to India, and as far as Japan. Putting in a more prominent appearance — and giving this otherwise purely historical epic its SFnal edge — is the enigmatic immortal Enoch Root, who always seems to turn up at the most opportune times, when something of great import has occured....
Eliza's story has suspense of its own, but of a different sort. The Juncto eventually dovetails with Bonanza, as it turns out that the gold the Cabal has stolen was the property of the duc d'Arcachon, and intended to aid the French war effort. (Following the successful revolt of William of Orange in England, the French are keen to reinvest their Catholic puppet James on the throne.) Furthermore, there are rumors — which Eliza learns when she meets in England with Waterhouse and Newton — that the gold was produced by alchemical means.
But for the most part, Eliza's story details her continuing rise in the ranks of French society, where nearly her every action — a significant one is helping to develop the concept of credit in order to aid cash-strapped France, an idea that sounded crazy at the time (it still is, really), and which Stephenson details in all its craziness — is motivated by a desire to avenge herself against those responsible for her and her mother's abduction years ago. To this end her machinations know no bounds, but even in her most ruthless moments (at one point, she deliberately infects a minor nobleman with smallpox, which eventually kills him and his mistress, simply because the man has sexual designs on a friend's young daughter) she's never unsympathetic or unlikable. She is simply an intelligent and determined woman doing what she feels she must in dangerous and (of course) confused times. The Juncto is more of a character piece, but, like Bonanza, it features its share of white-knuckle excitement when the occasion calls for it.
But most readers will probably enjoy Jack's story more than Eliza's. A lot of The Juncto is taken up with an exhaustive account of the foundation of modern banking that reads like some of the more textbooky passages of Quicksilver, and can sometimes be slow sailing, while Bonanza gets the lion's share of the story's wit and thrills. But what an rip-roaring tale it all is, filled to bursting with one memorable set-piece after another. The Cabal's mad escape from Cairo, their loss of the gold at the hands of Barbary pirates, their reunion in India and development of phosphorus (which practically burns down an entire town), Jack's forced crossing of a crocodile-infested river at the behest of a Malabar queen. The fun never ends when one is a former vagabond and gold thief whose head is sought by virtually the entire civilized world.
The Baroque Cycle remains a saga that will probably continue to prove far too intimidating and "boring" for a lot readers, particularly those for whom "escapism" is the leading criterion for choosing what to read. I think this is a shame, as those folks will really be missing out. After all, the adventure scenes in The Confusion are far more dazzling than a lot of what I've seen from some of SF and fantasy's fan-favorite names. Stephenson has never pretended not to be a demanding writer — this is the man who wrote an 1100-page book about code-breaking, after all — but the point is that he delivers. It is Stephenson's philosophy that exciting entertainment need not be exclusive of that which engages the mind, and the Baroque Cycle is his testament to that philosophy. Go ahead and meet him on his own terms — you will receive satisfaction.