This is only the sixth book I've started this year, for a variety of reasons. (Seventh if you count a book I read at work. I should write about that one sometime. Maybe I will.)
6) The Confusion - Neal Stephenson (Feb 21 - May 7)
The Confusion is the second massive tome in the Baroque Cycle, an epic of quasi-historical fiction set between about 1660 and the early 1700s. It's actually made up of two books, which follow intertwining plotlines, and chapters from the two books were therefore interspersed in the single volume I had.
One book, The Juncto, is largely a work of political intrigue, espionage, and financial adventures. The finance is particularly important; Britain, France, Spain, and the Dutch are all in various stages of war throughout the book, and the manipulation and disruption of entire national economies is in play as the main characters are nobles working at high levels in their respective societies. But Juncto also contains a fair bit of Natural Philosophy (i.e. those studies, and those students, which would come to know as "science" and "scientists"), as well as certain amounts of Alchemy. This area of the story tends to center on Isaac Newton and Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and naturally the world of Natural Philosophy is nearly as rife with political squabbling as the world of war and finance.
The other book, Bonanza, is a fantastical, swashbuckling, world-spanning adventure, as the fortunes of one Jack Shaftoe and his comrades are brought high, and low, and high again. It seems the farthest thing possible from high-nobility story of Juncto, and yet the two meet and intersect time and again, dancing about each other like two snakes coiled about the staff of Hermes. Each book's developments has very real implications on the other, and so despite being technically split into two books, there is ultimately a single narrative.
The writing style is glorious. It feels at once like a pastiche on the style and vocabulary of the Baroque era, like an actual instance of said style (with minor translations to ensure the understanding of a modern audience), and like a thoroughly modern story. The dialogue and descriptions are littered with modern references, as in this quote:
Enoch stood on the upperdeck, waiting for his chests and bags to be lowered into the longboat. As he often did in idle moments, he reached into the pocket of his traveling-cloak and took out a contraption that looked a bit like a spool. But a poorly made one, for the ends of the spool were bulky, and the slot in between them, where the cord was wound, was narrow. He unwound a couple of inches of cord and slipped his finger through a loop that had been tied in its end. Then he allowed the spool to fall from his hand. It dropped slowly at first, as the spool's inertia resisted its tendency to unwind, but then it picked up speed and plunged smoothly toward the deck. Just shy of hitting the planks it stopped abruptly, having unwound its meager supply of cord. At the same moment Enoch gave a little twitch of the hand, and the spool reversed its direction and began to climb up the string.
Jack glanced across several fathoms of open water toward the Dutch ship. A dozen or so sailors were watching this miracle with their mouths open.
"They cannot see the string at this distance," Jack commented, "and suppose you are doing some sort of magick."
"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a yo-yo," Enoch said.
Without understanding the reference, the passage is at the least amusing; Enoch merely appears to be snarking a bit about the sailors' understanding in the last paragraph. The reference is not necessary to the understanding of the narrative, and one could conceive of him making that statement coincidentally, nearly three centuries before another author popularized a very similar sentiment. But from our modern point of view - or at least in my opinion - the reference adds another layer of humor over the top, with a sort of dialogical irony in that the audience can perceive a meaning to Enoch's statement that he could not himself have meant.
Anyway. That's the kind of stuff that makes me love this book, and that has me eagerly awaiting the arrival of the third volume, which I'll probably jump to the head of my reading queue (or at the very least, right after Heinlein's Number of the Beast, which will follow the completion of Phoenix Guards). And I would heartily recommend this series, at least to anyone who's interested in a book that requires a fair bit of attention to fully absorb and comprehend. It is not by any means light reading, but if you're willing to put the time into it, it is ultimately an incredibly rewarding story.