The Confusion (The Baroque Cycle, #2)

ISBN: 0060733357
ISBN 13: 9780060733353
By: Neal Stephenson

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About this book

In the year 1689, a cabal of Barbary galley slaves -- including one Jack Shaftoe, aka King of the Vagabonds, aka Half-Cocked Jack -- devises a daring plan to win freedom and fortune. A great adventure ensues -- a perilous race for an enormous prize of silver ... nay, gold ... nay, legendary gold.In Europe, the exquisite and resourceful Eliza, Countess de la Zeur, is stripped of her immense personal fortune by France's most dashing privateer. Penniless and at risk from those who desire either her or her head (or both), she is caught up in a web of international intrigue, even as she desperately seeks the return of her most precious possession.Meanwhile, Newton and Leibniz continue to propound their grand theories as their infamous rivalry intensifies, stubborn alchemy does battle with the natural sciences, dastardly plots are set in motion ... and Daniel Waterhouse seeks passage to the Massachusetts colony in hopes of escaping the madness into which his world has descended.This P.S. edition features an extra 16 pages of insights into the book, including author interviews, recommended reading, and more.

Reader's Thoughts

Jennifer

This book actually didn't take as long to read as the first book (Quicksilver). Perhaps it was because I already knew the characters well and didn't have to "ramp up" each time the book switched focus to a different set of characters. Really, though, I think it's because The Confusion is more of a swashbuckling adventure story, which large parts of Quicksilver were not (even though I really enjoyed the long first part of Quicksilver, involving Puritanism and science, it was a slow read). The Confusion is a page-turner, definitely over-the-top at times, but a fun read and just as packed with historical references as the first book. Unlike the first book, adequate closure to the main adventures is received at the end. I'm looking forward to starting the third book, but for practical reasons I must choose something smaller to bring on my upcoming travels...

Jonathan

A necessary result of the con-fusion of Bonanza and The Juncto (the two component novels that comprise this volume) is that the narrative meanders back and forth between the dealings of erudite Eliza (in Europe) and daring Jack Shaftoe (pretty much everywhere else). Both stories are equally compelling but in totally different ways: the swashbuckling adventures of a maritime cabal of pirates and slaves couldn't be more different from the sensitive and precise financial, political and scientific intrigues of the contingent of Natural Philosophers. Unforgettable characters are forged, given rich stories, and sometimes discarded so many times that the reader can't help but get confused themselves at times, but it all contributes to the breadth and span of this Baroque epic. Impossibly the two stories begin to converge - around Phosphorous, of all things - setting the stage for the much anticipated final act!

Judy

I remember like it was yesterday when I first read Neal Stephenson. I learned about him from a lit blog in 2004 when I had started reading blogs but had not yet started my own. I read Snow Crash (1992) and was blown away. He opened up a whole new world of reading for me called "cyber punk" and led me to William Gibson and on from there.I have read Stephenson's books in the order he wrote them: The Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, Quicksilver. The only glitch is that his books are so long and take me over a week to read. I never seem to catch up. Every time a new Stephenson comes out (Reamde came out last September) I read another one, but I am still behind by three.Cryptonomicon (1999) was his first venture into the past, with part of the action taking place in the present, being the 1990s at that point, and the remainder during World War II. The infamous Bobby Shaftoe makes his first appearance.Then in 2003 came Quicksilver (the first volume of a trilogy, The Baroque Cycle.) These books are set in the 1600s. We meet the original Bobby Shaftoe, aka King of the Vagabonds, aka Half-cocked Jack, due to an unfortunate incident involving his cock. We also meet the indomitable Eliza, Isaac Newton, Leibniz, Louis XIV, and a lesser known member of the Royal Society, Daniel Waterhouse, whose descendant is a major player in Crytonomicon.I got to meet Neal Stephenson once, the year that Books Expo America was held in Los Angeles. I blurted out garbled gushing phrases about what a big fan I was and got an autographed copy of Anathem. I will read that one of these days. He is a tiny, slim guy with no hair on his head but a dark beard on his face. He exudes a calm intelligence and is possessed of a shy nature. Hard to believe that he can hold all that he knows in his head--proof to me that the mind is not the brain.So The Confusion is volume two of The Baroque Cycle. In 815 pages the story moves along a mere four years. Eliza has her tale of woes and triumphs centered in the court of Louis XIV; alternating chapters follow Bobby Shaftoe and his pirate adventures from Spain to Mexico to the Middle East to India and back to England.Though the volume is packed with action, adventure, sorrow, and history, it seemed just a tad slow compared to Stephenson's earlier books. However, it has been four years since I read Quicksilver. I do remember in each earlier book times when I felt held back by his torrents of words.I think he is laying a strong and sturdy foundation that will support the conclusions he comes to in the final volume, The System of the World. While these books are hyper-active historical fiction, they are also a look at the foundations of the political, monetary, and scientific issues we now live and grapple with in our daily lives. Never have I had so much fun learning history.

David Peters

Massive in size and massive in detail. As I have mentioned I finally committed to reading this 2700+ page three book series after avoiding it for years. Lisa asks me why I would read something I would avoid. On the surface I realize that it doesn't make sense, but Stephenson's books are so detailed and rich there is no such thing as skimming them; and they are not an easy read. It is work, but also very rewarding. The cost of that commitment is the realization of all the things I can't be reading, like the quick and easy stories, like the new John Grisham, which take me a day or two to get through. Grisham equals a one hour TV drama, Stephenson is a mutli-day mini series.Anyways I finished book two today having reached the turning point on Monday. The turning point is in a really long book where I have read enough pages I want to charge to the finish. Prior to that I am usually just trying to read to a page goal for the day. I have been picking up books every time I have gone to the library while reading this, and now I literally have 16 books on my nightstand to read before starting book 3.

David

This novel, like its predecessor and successor, is a historical novel for science-fiction geeks. I enjoyed it: well-written, vigorous, funny, smart. However, this book is not for everyone. If you have been paying attention to the same things the author has, then you'll enjoy his in-jokes: if not, not. For example, in mid-novel, Leibniz converses with another character about a (ridiculously impractical) system for organizing a library wherein each subject is assigned a prime number. Books about more than one subject are assigned the product of two prime numbers, one for each topic. (For example, “3” is the number assigned to all books about Plato, “5” is assigned to all books about birds. A book about Plato's view of birds would then be “15”. ) If you have been paying attention to developments in computer encryption in the last 20+ years, you'll recognize this as a concept that plays an important role in Pretty Good Privacy (PGP) and other methods of encryption. If not, the whole conversation will seem a massive waste of time, since it does not really serve to advance the plot. Similarly, on page 691 of my (hardcover) edition, Enoch Root says, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo”. (Please don't ask why.) This is similar to a popular science fiction axiom: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”, which is attributed to Arthur C Clarke. There must be dozens of other similar inside jokes which I did not pick up on.I am also enjoying this series as an antidote to all of today's tedious books, movies, video games, etc., about the Apocalypse. As a subject for fiction in any form, the Apocalypse has passed its sell-by date. If you agree with this statement, you may enjoy this book, because it's about an era in which a lot of short-sighted idiots when around wringing their hands needlessly about the end of the old order, completely missing the fact that something new and wonderful was being born. Sound familiar?

John

Fantastic book! As long as _Quicksilver_, this book feels shorter. There is less natural philosophy and more swashbuckling (including a complete circumnavigation of the globe). There's a bit about the alchemical properties of King Solomon's gold and some pre-Enlightenment chemical engineering. Additionally, there is a significant amount of banking, as many of the events in the book orbit the disintegration of the traditional feudal land economy of Europe and the rise to dominance of a market economy driven by international trade. We also are clued in to the conceptualization and creation of the first computing machines. Other than that, this novel is all over the place. So far, The Baroque Cycle is a really great story. Give it a chance if you have a lot of time on your hands.

Miles

Deeper into the wordy quagmire that is Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle. As with Quicksilver , this volume contains a considerable dose of magical moments dissolved in a nearly impenetrable sea of overdone gibberish. It’s brilliant gibberish, but not brilliant enough to make this book shine the way I typically expect from Stephenson. While enhancing the Baroque Cycle’s thematic strengths and moving the saga forward in promising ways, The Confusion is ultimately every bit as languorous as Quicksilver.This volume neglects the Baroque Cycle’s most interesting plot thread––Stephenson’s fictionalized account of the intellectual development and personal squabbles of 17th century Europe’s Enlightenment figures––for nearly 500 pages. Daniel Waterhouse is the most maligned victim of Stephenson’s overreach. Save a decidedly moving scene in which he brings a floundering Isaac Newton to his senses, Daniel’s narrative is largely put on hold here.Our consolation is that the lives of Jack Shaftoe and Eliza of Qwghlm become more complex (if not always more interesting). These two signify the social upheaval and economic recalibration that swept through Europe (and the rest of the world, to varying extents) as the 17th century came to a close. They are the figureheads of Confusion, that great handmaiden of Progress.Jack Shaftoe, it turns out, is not dead. His body having purged itself of the maddening French Pox, Jack teams up with an eclectic cabal of similarly disenfranchised galley slaves to win their freedom. The antics of this motley bunch are variously inspiring, puzzling, and yawn-inducing. During the decade leading up to 1700, they gallivant through Barbary, the Middle East, “Hindoostan,” the Far East, and the New World, before returning to Europe. Along the way, they manage to steal a boatload of “magic gold,” which enhances Jack’s already considerable mystique as Europe’s most audacious rapscallion. Jack solidifies his reputation as a ruthless pragmatist, and his diverse gang of freedom-seekers serves as Stephenson’s metaphorical conduit for inserting a modern sense of self-determination into a thoroughly antiquated historical setting. As a general idea, it’s clever and fun. Jack is charismatic and exhibits just enough moral complexity to pique my curiosity about how his unfolding odyssey will terminate. Unfortunately, his story is cluttered with bizarre, boring adventures that rarely influence the Baroque Cycle’s overarching plot. Important events do happen, but slowly, ever so slowly.Eliza has grown on me. I wasn’t sure how I felt about her after Quicksilver, but I think it’s fair to say she propounds a strange sort of feminism after all, and isn’t quite the bimbo with brains I thought she was. Similar to Jack, she is a vehicle for unlikely (but inevitable) fits of progress in a stifling world. She is unusually assertive and laudably subversive, but also tragically subject to the confines of Baroque gender roles. Her most intriguing quality is her relationship with the French aristocracy, which turns up its nose at her humble origins but can’t deny her intellectual cunning and financial savvy. Despite her past, Eliza is eventually declared a Duchess by Louis XIV––a historically significant concession that marks the decline of monarchic power and the rise of the mercantile class and free markets. Later, she marries (unhappily) into a very powerful French family. Though Eliza is forced to assume traditional wifely responsibilities, she retains her passion for independence, her economic acuity, and her steadfast hatred of the slave trade. She is a woman of contradictions sprung from traits and perspectives ahead of her time. Unfortunately, as with Jack’s tale, Eliza’s story is tarnished by Stephenson’s inability to quell his discursive predilections. Ideas that could be communicated in a few carefully-chosen scenes get lost in a barrage of monetary minutiae, epistolary doldrums, and tiresome aristocratic bickering.Perhaps the saddest aspect of both Eliza and Jack is that they seem more coherent when understood as symbols rather than as actual people, a quality that makes for excellent intellectual fodder but prevents me from making an emotional commitment to them.The farther I fall down the Baroque Cycle’s rabbit hole, the more I find myself begrudgingly enthralled by the project’s scope, if not its nuts and bolts. Perhaps I am just desperate to justify my efforts after 1,700+ pages, with nearly 900 left to go. I’ll stand by my claim that it’s far from Stephenson’s best work, but I’m beginning to doubt that I will get to the end and feel I’ve wasted my time. Despite its flaws, The Confusion concludes with a series of highly entertaining and genuinely meaningful flourishes, mostly having to do with Jack’s return to England. Perhaps it’s not too much to hope it all might come together in a climax most marvelous, one befitting Stephenson’s ambitions and undeniable genius.This review was originally published on my blog, words&dirt.

Jim

Zounds, and Zounds and Zounds yet again! This tis truly a Brick of a Book, as was Quicksilver. Tis not a quick read, but tis a joy to read! Alternating between the stories of Eliza, in the court of Louis the XIV, and English Royalty alike, and the story of Jack Shaftoe, AKA King of the Vagabonds, AKA Half-Cocked Jack, AKA Quicksilver, and his tale of Stolen gold. Jack goes 'round the globe with his Cabal which is ever dwindling. We also meet his sons this go around, along with his Brother Bob (who. spends some time with Eliza, and also sometime reuniting with his Purloined Love!). In the middle of all this, Daniel Waterhouse has not been forgotten, but is more in the background for most of this. Truthfully, Neal Stephenson has not heard "Brevity is the sould of Wit", I presume, as this is the antithisis of brevity, yet loses none of it's Wit. I am getting near the Summit of this Mountain of a Novel, fully realizing that there 'tis one more Mountain to climb! Ye gods, the THINGS this man knows. The history of Science, the History of Math, the History of Money, and History itself. Ye gaods yet again, the SCOPE of this. We go from England, to Ireland, to France, to India, to Egypt, to The Barbary Coast, and to The Phllipines (not necessarily in that order). This book makes me wish I know more Math, more Science, more History, More Economics and more Languages. I fear I have not journaled this noivel like I did Quicksliver, and for that I am sorry. But, I think at this time I am merely TIRED from this book. Not tired OF it, no, I shall prevail and tackle this as soon as I read the remaining 100 pages, and Vol 3 comes in the mail!When I finihs this whole 3 volume novel, methinks I shall read some short stories. Some Comic book. Some Limericks or Haikus maybe, I know not. But, in the not too distant future, I have some bricks of books that call my name, encluding more of Neals eventually. (Egads! ALL of his books seem to be bricks!) I think the next of his I shall read is Cryptonomican. (A book of this title is referred to in these volumes)Back to Jack, who tis mid Pacific somewhere or the other as I sit here!Zounds, yet one more time! I have finished this 2nd Brick of a Book, I have reach the Summit of this Mountain of a Book, for it has ended! And what a glorious end it was!. Now I am off to learn of The System of the World! Avast!

Michael Dendis

Part two of "The Baroque Cycle" is just as long, and just as good as the first part "Quicksilver". Stephenson does an amazing job keeping the stories moving along. You would think that with Book one being 918 pages and this one being 815 pages you would have a hard time keeping it all together. But he does! What's even better is the way Stephenson puts the book together. Whereas in "Quicksilver" the author told the story of Daniel Waterhouse, et al, in the first part of the book and then moved back in time to tell the story of Jack Shaftoe, et al. Stephenson intersperses the two stories chapter by chapter. This helps the reader keep everything together, knowing that these things are happening simultaneously from chapter to chapter. Being so long of a book, there is a lot to keep track of. Not only do you have different locations and timeframes, but you also have the different characters to remember. As with "Quicksilver" there are a lot of characters, and Stephenson compounds this issue by introducing even more characters, especially in the Jack Shaftoe sections of the book. I will warn any readers though that some of the characters disappear for a while and then suddenly come back into the story later so you have to be very mindful of what happened before. I've always been interested in history. History of all types. I've never really considered though the history of money and banking. Obviously this is a work of fiction but Stephenson I'm sure, has researched the history of money and banking in Europe thoroughly to give complete believability to the characters and the story. There is still an incredible amount of humor throughout the story though. This is more evident in the Jack Shaftoe sections of the book. It is a subtle, dry, very English-type of humor. I found myself laughing out loud throughout my time reading the book. This book (and series) does not come highly recommending enough. This series is for anyone who enjoys European history (as again the author has done an incredible job I believe in laying out much of the history of the ruling classes in England, France and Germany), history of money and banking, adventure stories (especially those of a sailing nature)and anyone who likes to read in general.

Sean

I picked up and put down Quicksilver over the course of a few years... Books of that physical size tend to intimidate me, so I was in no hurry to start The Confusion.. But once I got an ebook reader the physical size was no longer a factor. While I ostensibly started this book a few years ago, I really started it mid Jan 2013. Once I got into it I couldn't stop, finishing it two weeks later (though with a massive assist from a beach vacation). It took me way too long, as so much time had passed since I had read it, to recall the events of Quicksilver, even with a Wikipedia assist. Other than that I found the book to be interesting and engaging, and I honestly cared about the characters. On one hand it could be (easily) argued that this book could use some editing, the length really did allow for some serious pondering on the characters and their story.. That said, this book s certainly not for everyone..

Brad

The Confusion is a typical second book of an atypical trilogy, and that is not at all a criticism. The second book of trilogies always bridge the gap between the first and the last with a focus on character, plot development and building the framework for the payoff. When this is done well, as with The Two Towers, the second installment can hold its own with any installment in the trilogy; when this is done very well, as with Empire Strikes Back (I apologize for the movie reference), it can outshine any installment in the trilogy. When it comes to Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, I am not sure which of these two models The Confusion follows, but it is, at least, one of them. And now I will digress: I have heard from many that this is one of the most original works they have ever read. I don't doubt that it is the most original work that these folks have read, but that doesn't make it "original." Saying that it is not original is again, however, not a criticism, and it is certainly not a failing in Stephenson's work. I love Stephenson's Cycle, but as a fan of classic literature, particularly the work of Hugo and Dumas, I know that Stephenson is borrowing greatly from his forebears (who were borrowing from theirs, like Cervantes). I cannot stress enough that this is not a bad thing. It is what makes Stephenson's series compulsively readable. Everything old is new again, to borrow an old cliche. Which is precisely what makes The Baroque Cycle so "original" for today's audiences. It is sprawling, larger than any possible life, packed full of historical figures made characters, it is fiction and fact writ together as crazed adventure. What Stephenson does is brilliant, modernizing classic story-telling forms to remind us just how great the classics remain. Anyone who loves a good yarn or just plain loves books should read the Cycle and revel in its sheer audacious brilliance.But don't tell me it has never been done before. Just read it, love it and then start reading everyone who came before.

Douglas

I was hoping to be able to dispense with The Baroque Cycle in one go—to be honest I can't remember greatly liking one book in the trilogy over another, and I really want to put some distance between myself and those 2700+ pages. It's not that the story's not entertaining—it is. It's amusingly written, too, with an omniscient narrator who breaks the authorial third wall with snarky commentary on fashion choices in the 1600s. And as always, you'll learn a great deal with Stephenson. The birth of modern science, banking and monetary systems are a few of the cloisters within which his characters wander in this sprawling trilogy. But sprawl it does.Stephenson has said many times, in response to reader suggestions about using an editor, that he doesn't need one. He's wrong. He needs someone to cut words, paragraphs, pages, whole books—and at times to spank him, too. The books go on far, far too long in too many places, scurrying down narrative and didactic rabbit holes with nothing to show or it.One doesn't have the sense that Stephenson, fun as he can be to read—the entertainment and sheer breadth of the thing meriting three stars—is enough the master of his craft to have undertaken this cycle. Neither its plot nor its structure, nor its many adjoining themes, really amount to anything conclusive in the end.

Zach

This is a confusing review to write, because I'm already halfway through the sequel to this book, and they are bleeding together in my head.What I remember really enjoying about this book was Stephenson's patient exposition on the nature of money during a period in world history when modern notions of debt, credit, and currency were just beginning to take shape, and still struck many people as ridiculous. For example, one of the two main characters, Eliza, spends several chapters discussing the bizarre workings of Lyon, a major French trading city. Other characters, less savvy to the world of finance than Eliza, find it incredible that traders in Lyon are perfectly willing to accept as payment, in lieu of gold or silver, a line written in a ledger noting that Monsieur X owes the equivalent of 1,000 sols to Monsieur Y. Thus, modern exchange. In another chapter, the chief of the French treasury, in an effort to pay for a war against the English, calls in all the gold coins in circulation and re-mints them with the same amount of gold, but worth -- by decree of Louis XIV -- 10% more than before. Thus, fiat currency. All the while, Eliza is kept very busy using her excellent understanding of these topics to keep from being put to death by various members of the French nobility for any number of reasons, spurious and otherwise.Meanwhile, in the other, interleaved half of the book, Jack Shaftoe, erstwhile King of the Vagabonds, pursues diverse high-stakes nautical adventures that often rub up against Eliza's struggles in Versailles and other hotspots of courtly intrigue.All in all, this is a very good read, if you've already resigned yourself to reading a Neal Stephenson book. His tendency to abandon plot in favor of lengthy conceptual tangents is more active than ever before, and the bewildering cast of characters and locations can be daunting to the point of confusion. But I can't imagine a circumstance in which you would pick up this book and start reading without already understanding that aspect of what you were getting into.

Bensmomma

I sometimes think Neal Stephenson novels are fit only for college professors, especially business professors, with a need for astronomic levels of excitement, but since this category includes *me* I love this series. The form of the novels reminds me of a baroque and convoluted Candide - a picaresque in which philosophical speculation trades places back and forth with big-time all-star adventure - burning ships, mistaken identities, kidnappings, mounds and piles of gold, murderous Jesuits, etc. The science makes the adventure more fun (a detailed chapter about how phosphorus is made becomes a chapter about how our heros win a battle with bottles of phosphorus). Outside of people like me, some people might like the adventure bits, and others the philosophy bits - but not both. If you fall in this camp it's still worth a go, because Stephenson is an utter genius at invention. The end is thrilling! Sad! Unexpected! Makes me crave volume 3 ("The System of the World")!

Mike

** spoiler alert ** Neal Stephenson is clearly having the time of his life writing these books, and The Confusion continues on nicely.It drops the "three books, each about a single character or pair of characters" structure from Quicksilver in favor of two books intermingled: Bonanza, following Jack's adventures following his being sold into slavery at the end of Quicksilver, and The Juncto, following Daniel and Eliza navigating European politics.Bonanza is a tremendously fun adventure tale that stretches the boundaries of belief just enough to be consistently amusing. If I were to dock it any points, it would be that it suffers too much from -- as the last part of Quicksilver did -- Stephenson eliding large stretches of time in order to move the plot along. The ending is a little pat, but makes for a hell of a Stephensonian "slam cut to black" while also neatly answering the question of where Jack is at the beginning of Quicksilver.The Juncto, like Odalisque before it, is choppy, but manages to improve on its predecessor. Daniel ends up being absent, or just glimpsed through his letters, for much of the story (reasonable, considering his surgery at the end of Quicksilver), and most of the focus goes to Eliza, who is shaping up into an interesting character.Overall, I'm really pleased with this -- I actually think I'll bump Quicksilver to a 5 -- and I'm looking forward to finishing off The System of the World this fall.

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