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Quicksilver (The Baroque Cycle, Vol. 1) Hardcover – September 23, 2003

3.5 out of 5 stars 540 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

In Quicksilver, the first volume of the "Baroque Cycle," Neal Stephenson launches his most ambitious work to date. The novel, divided into three books, opens in 1713 with the ageless Enoch Root seeking Daniel Waterhouse on the campus of what passes for MIT in eighteenth-century Massachusetts. Daniel, Enoch's message conveys, is key to resolving an explosive scientific battle of preeminence between Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz over the development of calculus. As Daniel returns to London aboard the Minerva, readers are catapulted back half a century to recall his years at Cambridge with young Isaac. Daniel is a perfect historical witness. Privy to Robert Hooke's early drawings of microscope images and with associates among the English nobility, religious radicals, and the Royal Society, he also befriends Samuel Pepys, risks a cup of coffee, and enjoys a lecture on Belgian waffles and cleavage-—all before the year 1700.

In the second book, Stephenson introduces Jack Shaftoe and Eliza. "Half-Cocked" Jack (also know as the "King of the Vagabonds") recovers the English Eliza from a Turkish harem. Fleeing the siege of Vienna, the two journey across Europe driven by Eliza's lust for fame, fortune, and nobility. Gradually, their circle intertwines with that of Daniel in the third book of the novel.

The book courses with Stephenson's scholarship but is rarely bogged down in its historical detail. Stephenson is especially impressive in his ability to represent dialogue over the evolving worldview of seventeenth-century scientists and enliven the most abstruse explanation of theory. Though replete with science, the novel is as much about the complex struggles for political ascendancy and the workings of financial markets. Further, the novel's literary ambitions match its physical size. Stephenson narrates through epistolary chapters, fragments of plays and poems, journal entries, maps, drawings, genealogic tables, and copious contemporary epigrams. But, caught in this richness, the prose is occasionally neglected and wants editing. Further, anticipating a cycle, the book does not provide a satisfying conclusion to its 900 pages. These are minor quibbles, though. Stephenson has matched ambition to execution, and his faithful, durable readers will be both entertained and richly rewarded with a practicum in Baroque science, cypher, culture, and politics. --Patrick O'Kelley

From Publishers Weekly

Stephenson's very long historical novel, the first volume of a projected trilogy, finds Enoch Root, the Wandering Jew/alchemist from 1999's Cryptonomicon, arriving in 1713 Boston to collect Daniel Waterhouse and take him back to Europe. Waterhouse, an experimenter in early computational systems and an old pal of Isaac Newton, is needed to mediate the fight for precedence between Newton and scientist and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, both of whom independently invented the calculus. Their escalating feud threatens to revert science to pre-empirical times. Root believes Waterhouse, as a close friend to both mathematicians, has the ability to calm the neurotic Newton's nerves and make peace with Leibniz. As Waterhouse sails back to Europe (and eludes capture by the pirate Blackbeard), he reminisces about Newton and the birth of England's scientific revolution during the 1600s. While the Waterhouse story line lets readers see luminaries like Robert Hooke and Isaac Newton at work, a concurrent plot line follows vagabond Jack Shaftoe (an ancestor of a Cryptonomicon character, as is Waterhouse), on his journey across 17th-century continental Europe. Jack meets Eliza, a young English woman who has escaped from a Turkish harem, where she spent her teenage years. The resourceful Eliza eventually rises and achieves revenge against the slave merchant who sold her to the Turks. Stephenson, once best known for his techno-geek SF novel Snow Crash, skillfully reimagines empiricists Newton, Hooke and Leibniz, and creatively retells the birth of the scientific revolution. He has a strong feel for history and a knack for bringing settings to life. Expect high interest in this title, as much for its size and ambition, which make it a publishing event, as for its sales potential-which is high.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Product Details

  • Series: Baroque Cycle (Book 1)
  • Hardcover: 944 pages
  • Publisher: William Morrow; 1st edition (September 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0380977427
  • ISBN-13: 978-0380977420
  • Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 2 x 9.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 3.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (540 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #401,652 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Molly Johnson on November 30, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I thoroughly enjoyed the book once I accepted that it is primarily about systems and concepts, not people and events. I call it "math fiction" (as opposed to science fiction). Some of the systems he writes about are: the logic behind all those beheadings and imprisonments, the reasons for seemingly pointless invasions and alliances, Dutch vs. French business practices and why Amsterdam businessmen were so rich, the difference between different religious factions in England, motivations behind French court etiquette, why fashion exists, how to make hangings less painful, etc. He continually asks why and how rather than who what when, and in that sense he gives a math perspective to history.
Nowhere else have I read such careful (and enlightening) descriptions of capitalist systems such as money-minting, banks, stock exchanges, and the selling and transport of goods. Stephenson shares with us not just the intrigues and excesses of the nobility of 17th century Europe but also his analysis of the systems that made all that wealth (and war) possible.
More importantly, he reveals the day-to-day work of Royal Society scientists. In describing the failed experiments, fires, smells, persecutions, and other dramas of their quest for knowledge he gives a human face to the development of science. And he shows how one might think mathematically and scientifically to solve problems in the real world.
Is it great fiction? No. Stephenson needs editing, but no one is capable of quite keeping up with him enough to dare shorten what he has to say. Is he an interesting author? Absolutely! Think of the book as an extended, wide-ranging dinner conversation. You won't get a word in edgewise, but exhausted as you are at the end, you'll be up all night thinking.
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I had a fantastic time reading Stephenson's latest book. Yes, I found it an extremely long read, but every page contained a wonderful nugget which made the journey worth the effort.
Here are two examples of Stephenson's unique ability to whip up a powerful brew of humor, science, and history:
"Penn did not take his gaze away from the window, but squinted as if trying to hold back a mighty volume of flatulence, and shifted his focal point to a thousand miles in the distance. But this was coastal Holland and there was nothing out that window save the Curvature of the World"
and...
"... I am seated near a window that looks out over a canal, and two gondoliers, who nearly collided a minute ago, are screaming murderous threats at each other... The Venetians have even given it a name: 'Canal Rage'."
Which isn't to say that the book doesn't have its share of flaws - I'll talk about the two major ones here. First, if you've read Stephenson before, you are undoubtedly aware of his tendency to use 1000 words to do where 100 would have worked just fine. So, sometimes you begin to think "where was the editor?", but most of the time he is able to pull all the threads (long as they are) together into a cohesive, compelling whole. But overall, the extreme length ends up being a plus.
The other major flaw stems from Stephenson's seemingly bottomless reservoir of creativity: this book contains not one, not two, but three lead characters. But, you say, you can't have more than one lead character, no? Exactly! All three main characters are compelling in their own way, and you want to keep watching each one grow and change. As was the case with Cryptonomicon, Stephenson could easily have written an entire book just about the character Shaftoe.
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Format: Mass Market Paperback
Here's the complete list to help people avoid buying something they already have:

Quicksilver, Vol. I of the Baroque Cycle
Book 1 - Quicksilver
Book 2 - The King of the Vagabonds
Book 3 - Odalisque

The Confusion, Vol. II of the Baroque Cycle
Book 4 - Bonanza
Book 5 - The Juncto

The System of the World, Vol. III of the Baroque Cycle
Book 6 - Solomon's Gold
Book 7 - Currency
Book 8 - The System of the World
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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Please be advised that this review is being written with the added perspective of having already read the second installment of the Baroque Cycle. As a novel standing on its own I would not give Quicksilver 5 stars, for some of the same reasons that other reviewers have not given it five stars (lack of firm plot, etc.). I think many of those reviewers will be ultimately proven wrong. The Baroque Cycle, in reality, is one 2500-2700 page book. The plot and the intent of the author in undertaking the project become more and more evident as you continue reading. How many books do you have all figured out by the time you are a third through them anyway? and on top of that, why would you want to read a book that you could have all figured out in the first few chapters?

That said, Quicksilver in specific, and The Baroque Cycle in general, is brilliant writing. I'm lucky that there is a Neal Stephenson out there to write like this because otherwise I would have to do it myself... and I wouldn't be good at it. Stephenson writes the kind of books that I want to read. Quicksilver successfully mixes politics, science, romance, travel, intrigue and any number of other genres and in the mix gives us an exciting view into 16th century life, both for the upper classes and the lower. Like all of Stephenson's work, I laughed out loud at the absurdity of certain events in the story while reluctantly admitting that, yes, that could have actually happened. It bogs down in places with what you might take as a bit too much detail, but by now that is an intrinsic element of Stephenson's style and this book would be incomplete without it. I hated my history classes in school, but I love reading this sort of historical fiction. Why? It's written from a modern perspective and filled with wit and humor.
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