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