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The Confusion: The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 2    by Neal Stephenson order for
by Neal Stephenson
Order:  USA  Can
William Morrow, 2004 (2004)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

The second volume in the Baroque trilogy, The Confusion, details the continuing saga of Jack and Eliza. It began in Quicksilver with concurrent plots - one story line featured Daniel Waterhouse, an invented friend of both Newton and Leibniz, and another starred Jack and Eliza, two fictional adventurers ready to make their mark on history. Readers will be happy to know that other characters from the the first episode, such as Bob Shaftoe and Enoch Root, also show up again.

It begins in 1689 with Jack's adventures, first as a galley slave, then as a pirate seeking the lost treasure of a Spanish ruffian named Carlos Olancho Macho y Macho. Eliza is stuck in the court of Louis XIV, but still manages to carry out political intrigues. The historical themes are maintained by a running correspondence between Leibniz and Eliza, which provides interesting science history from that particular era. The story is all about old-fashioned, swashbuckling adventure, and there's a lot of it. The pirate theme is a wonderful vehicle for all sorts of wild tales involving natives of exotic places, and also allows for plenty of fighting. Eliza provides a more civilized tone and introduces much of the science trivia of her day, via the correspondence and contacts she has in Europe's political courts.

Though the series is labeled as SF, there's not much in this episode that's speculative - it's more of an epic adventure featuring science history. The adventure is very exciting and there is always something unexpected happening. Stephenson does an excellent job of keeping everyone on their toes, to see what incredible feats of derring-do the pirates may enact next in their quest for the treasure. Eliza's intrigues, while less physical, are just as involving. Although the science trivia is a bit much at times, it's also of high interest, especially to history buffs. However, while the story is quickpaced, often the prose is lengthy and wordy. It's easy to get bogged down in details of science and math, descriptions of fights that last forever, and political expoundings.

I'm not scared of big books, since my favorite novels include The Stand by Stephen King, no slacker when it comes to wordiness, and L. Ron Hubbard's Battlefield Earth. Hey, I even enjoyed Herman Wouk's War and Remembrance. But the dialogue in The Confusion gets boring because it seems forced on readers to educate them, instead of flowing naturally from the story line. And the characters, while well-fleshed out, can be stiff and unreal, so that readers have a hard time identifying with them. The language can also be crude, and at least once featured a slang phrase signifying sodomy, which I personally find offensive due to its frequent connotation of violence against women. While I'm not a fan of profanity or crude language, it doesn't bother me when it fits the characters or story, as in Stephen King's novels and Westlake's Dortmunder books. But in this case, I found it jarring.

While the dialogue could use trimming and the characterization more warmth, on the whole The Confusion is a good adventure story that most readers will find exciting and entertaining. It's also one that will take a while to finish - always a good thing for avid readers, especially for a summer vacation read.

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