Neal Stephenson practices alchemy of the literary variety, turning words into gold in the successful conclusion of his Baroque Cycle, The System of the World. Perhaps because he's been racing to get to this third and final volume, this book is the most accessible of the series (not counting his earlier linked novel, Cryptonomicon).
Stephenson dives straight into the political and religious machinations that will, within decades, turn 18th-century England into the industrial powerhouse of the western world. While familiarity with the previous two entries in the series, Quicksilver and The Confusion, is probably a given for any reader of this novel, a brief summary of "The story thus far" is provided at the beginning of the book for readers who are just getting started.
Natural Philosopher Daniel Waterhouse returns from the New World to England only to find himself caught up in a number of intertwining intrigues. He is intimately involved in the private manufacturing of a new machine about which other parties are very curious; the Tory and Whig parties are positioning themselves in readiness for the succession battle after Queen Anne's death; and mysterious assassins have been attacking eminent Natural Philosophers including Daniel himself on the day he arrives in London.
Daniel, who has also been tasked with trying to heal the rift between Sir Isaac Newton and the German mathematician Gottfried Leibniz over who invented calculus, teams with Newton to investigate the attacks. However, Newton has a secondary, private motive. In his role as Master of the Mint, he has long been at war with Jack Shaftoe, King of the Vagabonds, a counterfeiter also known as Jack the Coiner, who intends to sabotage the realm.
There is of course much more going on in this wide-ranging 900-page novel. Daniel's return to England after long years away gives Stephenson plenty of opportunities to use his extensive historical research on the era. The character's observations and asides on aspects of 18th-century British life and society slip seamlessly into the narrative.
At nearly 3,000 pages, Stephenson's exceptional trilogy is an achievement on an epic scale that will delight science fiction readers for years to come.
Gavin Grant writes from Northampton, Massachusetts.