King of the Vagabonds: Great characters, still teachy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews audiobook Neal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 2. King of the VagabondsKing of the Vagabonds by Neal Stephenson

King of the Vagabonds is the second installment of Neal Stephenson’s ambitious and epic Baroque Cycle. I was disappointed with Quicksilver, the first book, because, though it was a thorough and realistic historical fiction, it had neither a compelling main character nor a cohesive plot. Thus, it felt like a textbook, except that I wasn’t sure which anecdotes about the real historical figures were factual and which were fictional. In other words, if we’re going to skip the plot, I’d rather read about 17th century scientific discoveries in a non-fictional account. After all, there are plenty of interesting ones.

King of the Vagabonds is, therefore, quite an improvement, mostly because it has two extremely entertaining main characters: Half-Cocked Jack Shaftoe (who is, literally, half-cocked) and Eliza, who Jack rescues from a Turkish harem. Both are lowborn, but they’re smart and ambitious (and Eliza is beautiful), so they find themselves involved in the goings-on of the upper class.

That’s because, of course, Neal Stephenson’s real purpose in The Baroque Cycle, is to give us a comprehensive and entertaining historical fiction about the great events going on in this time in history. In this, Stephenson certainly succeeds; his version of history is appropriately dirty (plenty of manure and maggots), scandalous, and funny (in that ironic way that the British have). The audiobook reader, Simon Prebble, adds another layer of authenticity with his perfect upper-crust, Cockney, French, and German accents.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsEven though I liked King of the Vagabonds better than Quicksilver, I still have the same issue: I am being schooled, and the lessons, unlike the humor, are not subtle. Nearly every page contains information and/or explanations that are meant to teach me something. Even the dialogue is full of it. Here’s an example in which Eliza is ice skating at The Hague and talking to the French Ambassador to the Dutch Republic:

Ambassador: … that fellow has asserted that, since he cannot represent an uncrowned king, he must still be representing the late Charles II, who was crowned in 1651 after the Puritans chopped off the head of his father and predecessor. My King was crowned in 1654.

Eliza
: But with all due respect to the Most Christian King, monsieur, doesn’t that mean that Charles II, if he still lived, would have three years’ seniority over him?

Ambassador
: A rabble of Scots at Scone tossed a crown at Charles’s head, and then he came and lived here, begging for handouts from Dutchmen, until 1660 when the cheese-mongers paid him to leave. Practically speaking, his reign began when he sailed to Dover.

Englishman
: If we are going to be practical, sir, let us consider that your King did not practically begin his reign until the death of Cardinal Mazarin on the ninth of March, 1661.

Who really talks that way? The whole book is like this, with frequent sections of explanation about mining, coin stamping, investments and speculation, importing and exporting, Satanic rituals, religious sects, etc, etc. Somehow, though they’re lowborn and uneducated, Jack and Eliza are like walking encyclopedias, constantly explaining things to each other for our benefit. (Eliza was educated in the Turkish harem, but I doubt that the nuances of each European financial system and stock market were part of her training. Or that she really could be discussing subtle political maneuvering with William of Orange and the Duke of Monmouth.)

However, this issue is maybe just mine. I don’t like it when an author’s purpose, even when it’s clearly stated, is so transparent behind the text of a novel. If this is not an issue for you, then you are likely to greatly enjoy King of the Vagabonds. Neal Stephenson has a great understanding of this time period, he relays it thoroughly in lovely language, the few action scenes are exciting, and the novel is gently humorous (and sometimes hilarious) throughout. If you’re an audiobook reader, you won’t want to miss Simon Prebble’s narration.

The Baroque Cycle — (2003-2004) The first three novels, (1. Quicksilver 2. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque) are also available in an omnibus edition titled Quicksilver. Publisher: Neal Stephenson’s Quicksilver is here. A monumental literary feat that follows the author’s critically acclaimed New York Times bestseller Cryptonomicon, it is history, adventure, science, truth, invention, sex, absurdity, piracy, madness, death, and alchemy. It sweeps across continents and decades with the power of a roaring tornado, upending kings, armies, religious beliefs, and all expectations. It is the story of Daniel Waterhouse, fearless thinker and conflicted Puritan, pursuing knowledge in the company of the greatest minds of Baroque-era Europe, in a chaotic world where reason wars with the bloody ambitions of the mighty, and where catastrophe, natural or otherwise, can alter the political landscape overnight. It is a chronicle of the breathtaking exploits of “Half-Cocked Jack” Shaftoe — London street urchin turned swashbuckling adventurer and legendary King of the Vagabonds — risking life and limb for fortune and love while slowly maddening from the pox… and Eliza, rescued by Jack from a Turkish harem to become spy, confidante, and pawn of royals in order to reinvent a contentious continent through the newborn power of finance. A gloriously rich, entertaining, and endlessly inventive novel that brings a remarkable age and its momentous events to vivid life — a historical epic populated by the likes of Samuel Pepys, Isaac Newton, William of Orange, Benjamin Franklin, and King Louis XIV — Quicksilver is an extraordinary achievement from one of the most original and important literary talents of our time. And it’s just the beginning…

Neal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the WorldNeal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the WorldNeal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the WorldNeal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the WorldNeal Stephenson The Baroque Cycle 1. Quicksilver 1. King of the Vagabonds 3. Odalisque 4. The Confusion 5. The System of the World


FOLLOW:  Facebooktwitterrsstumblr  SHARE:  Facebooktwitterredditpinteresttumblrmail
If you plan to buy this book, you can support FanLit by clicking on the book cover above and buying it (and anything else) at Amazon. It costs you nothing extra, but Amazon pays us a small referral fee. Click any book cover or this link. We use this income to keep the site running. It pays for website hosting, postage for giveaways, and bookmarks and t-shirts. Thank you!

KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

View all posts by

Review this book and/or Leave a comment:

Your email address will not be published.