Book Review: Newton's Cannon
Reviewer: Joseph Teller
This Review Originally Appeared In Interregnum APA in an abbreviated form
ISBN 0-345-43378-5 (Del Ray/Randomhouse)
Author J. Gregory Keyes has hit upon a winning combination with his new book series, The Age of Unreason which Newton's Cannon is the first volume. I have the second volume and am anxious for the third to come out.
The setting is a wonderous weaving, drinking deeply of the history of the early 1700s and entwining into it an alternative history time line that comes alive and looks at the famous people of that time in a new light.
In 1681 Sir Isaac Newton achieves an alchemical feat that changes the world. Jupiter rides his eagle, and the menstruum carries it up. Philosopher's Mercury is made a reality, changing the world forever. A new era of science and invention is spurred by this development and the dangers and risks that go with it.
In 1715 Louis the Sun King is on his deathbed and drinks a mysterious Persian Elixir, which later is found to be yet one more result of Newton's new science, and becomes apparently restored in health to rule France and continue his wars with England.
Keyes has taken the single invention and applied its consequences across the board as time progresses. Wireless Fax machines, cannonballs that turn walls from stone to glass, devices that can turn lakes to ice, or evaporate it into clouds of steam, and numerous other devices arrive throughout the period covered by the book in logical progression.
The cast of history is lead by Benjamin Franklin, a mere child and apprentice to his brother's print shop in Boston who realizes the value of the new technology quickly and becomes a proto-type hacker in the true concept of the word (not the modern one). First taking the fax like technology (the aetherschreiber) and using it to get news across the atlantic from London to Boston in less than a day (and scooping all the competing papers) and then developing a way to eavesdrop on all the aetherschreibers in Boston in an ever growing desire to expand the news and gossip, which leads to involvement in complex intrigues and encounters with spies working for the King of France.
Franklin also gets involved in a personal secret war with those who oppose the new science, practitioners of some old, powerful and effective form of magic that it takes his scientific mind some time to accept the existence of, and which is more terrifying than most of the products of the new science, except maybe Newton's Cannon itself.
Franklin, Edward Teach (Blackbeard), Louis The Sun King, Peter The Great, Sir Isaac Newton, Voltaire, and Nicolas D'Artagnan (yes, D'Artagnan) all appear and grace the stage of this world in ways both expected and unexpected. Also present are little known faces from history, brought into the limelight in an interesting manner.
The future books involve Franklin, Newton, Peter the Great and such luminaries as Cotton Mather and Blackbeard in the aftermath of the conclusion of the war between France and England, by the use of a super-weapon, Newton's Cannon by the French.
Great depth, great characterization, well thought out time line of events and plenty of plot twists and turns along the way. Keyes is an excellent writer, and his characters come across as very much alive and very human in their reactions and lives.
This is the sort of series that might make a great setting for a roleplaying game, if the setting survives the world encompassing plots (its hard to tell if it will, but that of course is part of its charm). I recommend it highly.