In one sense, writing a review of The System of the World, the third and final volume in Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle, is an act of futility: virtually every reader who has plowed through the first 1700 pages of the story is likely to read the last 900, and certainly no reader should start with this final volume. A small contingent of readers who have felt cheated by previous Stephenson books may have been waiting to find out if he actually ends the story, or simply wraps everything up and stops writing. In fact, Mr. Stephenson provides this novel with a suitable ending, one which feels both complete and relatively unforced.
It seems as though Stephenson took a breather between finishing The Confusion and beginning The System of the World: he comes back refreshed and ready to tackle the story with renewed vigor. Or perhaps that's only the reader's impression, having had more than five months' rest between volumes. The separate books of The System of the World - "Solomon's Gold," "Currency," and "The System of the World" - seem much more a single story than did the separate books of the other two volumes. If the first book focused on the scientific and political superstructure of the story and the second concentrated on character development while extending the cluster of financial metaphors, this volume expends much more energy on plot, with the result that it is the swiftest-moving of the three.
Because of the attention to plot in this volume, to give away much it away here would do a disservice to the reader. Suffice it to say that for the first half of The System of the World, it is not clear that this book will actually end, much less the trilogy: subplot after subplot is piled onto an already full storyline: time-bombs ('infernal devices'), slavery, prison breaks, the steam engine, further political machinations, and counterfeiting. Finally, mercifully, the plotlines of the story resolve themselves in ways large and small and we discover the fates of Stephenson's protagonists, Daniel Waterhouse, Jack Shaftoe, and Eliza. Secondary characters and historic personages are also dealt with in a satisfying fashion.
One of the climactic scenes occurs at the Mint, during an assay of the country's coinage. Few writers could make the scene as dramatic as Stephenson manages without resorting to the threat of a violent interruption of the scene. The writing is excellent here, and manages to invest what could be a dry and technical exposition with life and tension. The end move swiftly, and can rightly be called a page-turner-a far cry from the political plodding that slows Quicksilver.
The two financial ideas central to this volume are counterfeiting and currency. Counterfeiting has in fact been important in both Quicksilver and The Confusion: in the first volume, Daniel Waterhouse and Isaac Newton visit a market and have quite a time with all of the counterfeit coins. This rampant corruption of the money supply drives the recoinage that supplies the central metaphor of The Confusion. In this volume, it sets Jack up against Newton, the counterfeiter against the master of the mint, and generates the steam that moves the plot along.