King of the Vagabonds (Neal Stephenson) 4*

A rollicking good ride.

Usually, reading a Neal Stephenson book is like stumbling around a mad scientist’s laboratory: the place is dangerously alive.  The uneven floors are strewn with odd-looking bones, machines from the future, and loquacious imps arguing over semiotics.  Strange-colored fires explode out of nowhere.

King of the Vagabonds is unusual because, in its episodic way, it has a plot.  For instance, it has a beginning, in which Jack Shaftoe (King of the Vagabonds and L’Emmerdeur*) accidentally rescues a harem slave whilst chasing an ostrich.  It has a middle, in which said harem slave (Eliza of Qwghlm**) becomes one of the cleverest commodity traders in Amsterdam.  It has an end, in which a ceiling collapses under the weight of a thousand rats and Eliza throws a harpoon with impressive accuracy.

Without having read any of the other books in the Baroque Cycle, I’ll wager that this is the best of the lot due to copious quantities of Jack Shaftoe.  He’s an up-from-the-slums illiterate who’s clever as a fox and prudent as a 2-year-old.  When pressed to prove his identity, Half-Cocked Jack pulls down his pants to show his Credential.  Perpetually getting out of scrapes just a hair faster than he gets into them, Jack’s headlong rush through life (plus syphilis-fueled hallucinations) creates a wickedly funny fever dream.

Note that although the Baroque Cycle is set in the 1600s and 1700s (the first book is almost entirely about Principia Mathematica), Stephenson aptly classifies the books as science fiction.  Instead of speculating on future technology, the Baroque Cycle zeroes in on game-changing technologies that have already occurred, such as stock exchanges, mathematics, cryptography, separation of church and state, and steam engines.  Most of the world is real, but Stephenson never hesitates to take liberties.  Jack and Eliza exchange dry wit as if they’d grown up watching Seinfeld, and Wikipedia notes that the yo-yo has never existed as a bladed weapon.

* French for “he who covers everything in shit”
** Qwghlm is a fictional British island whose language is a parody of Welsh

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3 responses to “King of the Vagabonds (Neal Stephenson) 4*

  1. All the plot elements you list also happen in the first 3 books. Now I am curious about what this new book is up to and will have to check it out. After I finish Spin. You are an enabler of my fiction addiction.

    • Eh? Are you becoming a cat lady with book deja vu? If we count the Baroque Cycle as 8 novels (even though Silly Stephenson calls it 3 “books” each consisting of 2 or 3 stand-alone novel-length volumes), King of the Vagabonds is book 2 of 8. Unless you mean the “first 3 books” you read by Neal Stephenson because, come to think of it, this is not the first time a harpoon has been thrown.
      I’m trying to decide which, if any, further books to read in the series. I’m convinced that I’ll be disappointed if I read everything (the middle two books called “The Confusion” certainly sound ominous). Odalisque sounds pretty good, but after carefully checking the spoiler-free reviews, I’ve confirmed that Odalisque is all Eliza, Daniel Waterhouse, and Leibniz (but no Jack). I’ve never met Daniel, but he sounds like a no-fun Massachusetts dude with a hat. I just want to know if Jack becomes a pirate.

      • I am probably a cat lady with book deja vu, but in this case it is cool- I think of it as 3 largish books, so I have in fact read King of the Vagabonds. I rather like Daniel and Leibniz, but I have no recommendations as I tore through the books in a mindless binge, which I think is how they were meant to be consumed.

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