I've just finished reading the first part of Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle - "Quicksilver". Set in late 17th century Europe, the book contains a host of historical characters (factual and fanciful) and follows their adventures in the embryonic world of natural philosophy, metaphysics, alchemy, mathematics and free-market capitalism, as they negotiate their way through the religious and political turmoil of the Reformation, Restoration and Protestantism of the time.
Stephenson's writing is erudite, literate and sophisticated. Make sure you have your thinking cap firmly in place, as the narrative and dialogue is fast-paced and flows on multiple levels of meaning.
The characters are a particularly interesting collection of nobility, peasantry and illuminati including, to name a few, Newton, Leibniz, Pepys, Hooke, Spinoza, Flamsteed, Huygens, Waterhouse, various kings of England and France, and 'Half-cocked' Jack Shaftoe. Variously, these characters found the Royal Society; develop Calculus and the theory of Gravitation; discover planets, moons, comets; set the foundations for today's financial markets; institute Lloyd's lists; instigate political and religious revolutions; promote the study of anatomy, botany and various other sciences through some particularly unethical (by modern standards) experimental techniques; and dabble in the mysteries of alchemy.
Better still, Stephenson lays out a flowing narrative that encompasses a broad swathe of the turbulent landscape that was 17th century Europe. This book puts me in mind of Eco's "The Name of the Rose", both for the quality of it's story-telling and the well-researched historical setting.
Whether or not the author is able to maintain the quality of this first installment throughout the rest of the series ("The Confusion" and "The System of the World") remains to be seen (at least by me). However, on the basis of this first book I am certainly looking forward to reading the rest of The Baroque Cycle.