In Quicksilver, the 900-page opening volume of the massive "Baroque Cycle" trilogy, Cryptonomicon and Snow Crash author Neal Stephenson launched a massive opus that conjoined historical figures like Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz, and Robert Hooke with the fictional ancestors of Stephenson's modern-era Cryptonomicon dynasties. Plumbing the latter half of the 17th century, Quicksilver served simultaneously as a tutorial in European political, religious, and scientific history, and as a picaresque yarn about a cast of characters colorful enough to populate a romance novel.

The Confusion, the series' second installment, takes up the tale in 1689. "King of the Vagabonds" Jack Shaftoe, last seen as a raving syphilitic and galley-slave, comes to his senses outside Algiers. Suffering from amnesia but irreverent as ever, he's now part of a preposterously colorful slave cabal that includes a Jewish scholar, a Jesuit Japanese samurai, a well-born Spanish privateer with Tourette Syndrome, and an African linguist. The conspirators have assembled a daring plan to earn their freedom—a dangerous raid that's one step short of a Rififi-style cinematic heist, and that leads them literally around the world.

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Meanwhile, in France, the newly ennobled Countess Eliza, once a harem-slave whom Jack rescued from a Turkish encampment, continues an affair with the King's cryptanalyst while raising their infant boy, whom gossips believe is the bastard child of a nobleman Eliza slept with as a cover-up and social-climbing maneuver. Beautiful, boundlessly ambitious, and financially brilliant, Eliza is the toast of Europe, except among those who want to blackmail, control, or kill her. As Jack wanders the planet, she remains planted in Europe, where war, economic speculation, and political maneuvering aid her in creating and losing friends, enemies, and fortunes.

Where Quicksilver was a fantastically discursive book that delved into mathematics, "natural philosophy," European royal genealogies, the chemical derivation and uses of quicksilver, and 17th-century trade practices and financial markets with equal fascination and aplomb, The Confusion sets much of that aside to focus on Jack and Eliza's separate adventures. Newton and Leibniz, as well as their contemporaries and their theories, fade into the background, and Quicksilver's charts and diagrams disappear altogether, leaving behind a far more mundane historical novel. But The Confusion is still aptly named: The plot is fantastically complex, overflowing with rich characters and tangled schemes. And Stephenson has an irksome but clever habit of skipping ahead in his story, abruptly dropping his characters into crises, then taking his time explaining how they got there. The tactic is confusing, but it keeps the book unpredictable and immersive through its 800-page bulk.

And that alone is an accomplishment. The Confusion is less challenging, less ambitious, and less forcefully informative than its predecessor, but it's no less exciting, especially as it gears up for a powerhouse ending. Quicksilver was revelatory; The Confusion will have to settle for simply being terrific.

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