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This series must be contemplated as a unified whole. This review is for the entire BAROQUE CYCLE.
Sorry Neal, I was wrong. For me Neal Stephenson was a bit of an acquired taste. My first Stephenson exposure was with SNOWCRASH, a zany over-the-top Sci-Fi farce with quirky characters, tight plotting and fascinating ideas—try an ancient software virus in the human brain. My next Neal Stephenson encounter was THE DIAMOND AGE and this was for years my last. It was not until revisiting SNOWCRASH now as an audiobook (narrated by the superb Jonathan Davis) that I realized that anyone able to reach such dizzying fictional heights once deserves more than one strike. It was after this that I listened to ANATHEM; strike two. But there was one more title that had received acclaim that I first had to tackle before relegating Stephenson to one-hit-wonder status: CRYPTONOMICON. This was a home run; different from SNOWCRASH in almost every way but still wonderful, and really long. From this I learned three things: (1) Stephenson was not easy to pigeon-hole; and (2) He could handle fictional works in the long form; and (3) If you are not preoccupied with plot advancement, the rabbit trails can be quite scenic. So, once I learned that many of the characters in CRYPTONOMICON had ancestors in THE BAROQUE CYCLE, I determined to tackle the whole lot back-to-back, as if it were one giant novel. QUICKSILVER is the first audio installment of THE BAROQUE CYCLE, which is here divided into seven installments. In print form it is broken into eight books published in three hefty volumes.
I could tell from the comments of other listeners that this huge tome is not for everyone. If you require fast tight plotting, this may not be for you. If you enjoy witty repartee between vagabonds, kings, courtiers and thieves then this may be the mother lode. I liken Neal Stephenson to Gene Wolfe; another writer who can keep my interest just by the brilliance of his prose. It was in the middle of ODALISQUE, book three in the cycle, that I realized I didn’t much care that the plot was just creeping along, and that side trips to follow the numerous cast of characters kept taking me away from the one I liked best. I was enjoying the show and didn’t want it to end. This is truly not seven different novels, but one huge novel tied together by recurring characters and one vast and very satisfying story arc.
This accomplishment by Neal Stevenson is just the thing that the term magnum opus was coined for. Mr. Stevenson demonstrates his ability to manage a vast narrative alternate history and retains his focus over two-thousand six-hundred eighty-eight hardcover pages, through one-hundred fourteen hours of audiobook narration; yet the feel and texture and pacing is consistent throughout the entire work. Amazing. If you decide to tackle this tome you will be rewarded. It may cause you to rethink the whole audiobook medium.
I really enjoyed Stephenson’s insights into the politics of the scientific community, revolving around Isaac Newton. The fusing of Natural Philosophy (science), Alchemy, commodity-based monetary theory, rags-to-riches character transformations, and court intrigue make for a fascinating experience. Listening to this series is like taking a time-travel vacation to the eighteenth century. The shabby, muddy, miasmic grunge of the period’s living conditions sometimes remind me of Monty Python and the Holy Grail or Jabberwocky, with associated punch-lines. This is a very different world from the one we live in but I began to think I might understand it a little better and found that, in some ways, it might not be so bad.
If you are at all interested in free-market economics, and commodity-based monetary theory then one of the long-term story arcs will be of intense interest to you. Stevenson explores the impact of the foundation of the central Bank of England upon the flow of gold. And his deft insertion of an Alchemical component into the mix creates an enjoyable element of mystery. This is the storyline that required one-hundred hours to tell.
This is a Science Fiction work because the alternate-history angle with Alchemy infecting the realm of science will appeal to the SF fan. If you were provided with a plot outline or given some character sketches you may think this an historical novel, and it could be read from that perspective. But Science Fiction readers don’t as a rule read historical novels, but they will read this, therefore, whatever qualities it possesses, justify the SF label.
—PERSISTENT THEMES OF THE BAROQUE CYCLE—
Predestination versus Free-Will is on everyone’s mind
The debate between Protestantism versus Catholicism had a huge political impact
Geocentrism versus Heliocentrism is the only thing everyone can agree upon
Commodity-based Monetary theory makes the world work
Court Intrigue and witty conversations provide joy in every circumstance
Meritocracy rags-to-riches stories abound
People can endure much if they have hope
Vagabond underworld versus Persons of Quality show we have much in common
Alchemy counterpoised with Natural Philosophy revel the nature of science
Encryption and secret writing have long been employed
True love makes life worth living
Courtly liaisons show the shallowness of the ruling class to whom society is entrusted
Simon Prebble does yeoman’s work on this production. To my ear he nailed every single pronunciation of every word in the course of over one-hundred hours of narration—no mean feat. His character voicings are subtle but immediately recognizable. His talent allows him to even give convincing alternate pronunciations of words to the different characters that are appropriate to their individual personalities. The more foppish English characters habitually emphasize different syllables than the lower class characters. Despite the deep quality of his voice Simon Prebble handles both male and female character voices convincingly. His voice has a limited range but I was constantly amazed at how he could make subtle alterations in inflection, diction and pacing to effectively distinguish the various characters in a conversation. Simon Prebble achieves the desirable state of occupying the place in your head usually reserved for your own internal sub-vocalizations when you are reading a print book to yourself. This is a high achievement indeed and makes this a soothing book experience.
Narrated by Simon Prebble (Main text)
Kevin Pariseau (Chapter epigraphs)
Katherine Kellgrin (Eliza’s letters)
Neal Stephenson (Introduction)
11 of 11 people found this review helpful
I found the addition of Katherine Kellgren as Eliza in the third book a little jarring, after having gotten used to Simon Prebble doing Eliza's voice in the two previous books (and doing a seamless job of it, too.)
Kellgren's Eliza is a touch too arch, too insufferably prissy; not how I imagined Eliza to be. It makes the numerous readings of Eliza's correspondence in this book three of the cycle seem interminable. This stands out because, though this is a ridiculously long work, I rarely lose patience with its length - and I remember reading through the correspondence sections of the third book without any impatience or sense of 'slogging through'.
I think her voice is just a bit too much, like trying to make an entire meal of lemon bars. Makes you long for plain bread. I'm hoping this effect lessens as the books go on.
11 of 12 people found this review helpful
What did you like most about Odalisque?
Love the Baroque Cycle and Simon Prebble's narration of it. Tolerated Kevin Pariseau's curious phrasing of the quotes at the beginnings of each chapter, but really didn't like Katherine Kellgren's interpretation of Eliza - she doesn't match my 'picture' of Eliza at all; on audible.com someone wrote she was 'too arch; too prissy' and I have to say I agree...
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
There is this underlying problem with the actress narrating Eliza, but otherwise this book really gripped me. Fantastic detail, plot and performance for everyone but Eliza.
This author is exceptional. His research, coupled with his creative weaving of his character's lives is second to none. Totally addictive.
0 of 1 people found this review helpful