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4.6 out of 5 stars
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on 19 March 2004
I'm a big fan of alternate histories, sometimes the weirder the better. Usually they're based on some change in a real-world event: what would happen if Stonewall Jackson wasn't killed by his own men? What would happen if Hitler had successfully invaded Great Britain? Some, however, are a bit more fantastical, and those can be even better. J. Gregory Keyes has created just such a series in his "Age of Unreason" books, the first of which is Newton's Cannon. If the first book is anything to go by, it's going to be a fun read.
The first scene is 1681, where Sir Isaac Newton has had a startling revelation in his study of alchemy, unleashing "Philosopher's Mercury" which allows people to manipulate the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. This produces things like floating balls of light that make candles obsolete, and powerful weapons as well. We then move to 1720. The French and the English are at war and King Louis XIV of France demands a weapon that will turn the tide, a weapon so devastating that even he doesn't know what he's unleashed. a device known mysteriously as Newton's Cannon. Over in the Colonies, a young apprentice named Benjamin Franklin has stumbled upon the secret. Using the new devices that allow words to be transferred over vast distances, he stumbles upon a mathematical problem that he has the answer for. But is he helping the English, or is he making a terrible mistake?
Newton's Cannon is a great blend of science, a little bit of magic, and a whole lot of "what-if." The historical characters, while much younger than we are familiar with (Ben Franklin starts at age 12), are still fairly recognizable. Ben is very intelligent, a writer and a printer's apprentice to his older brother, James. He's also an inventor, which unfortunately brings him a bit of trouble in this book. The story follows two plot lines: Benjamin Franklin's and a woman named Adrienne, who becomes involved with King Louis. Occasionally, the viewpoint switches to the king's, and it gets a bit distracting when it does that, but it's not too bad. For the most part, though, the chapters alternate between Ben and Adrienne, with no variance in that pattern. Of course, most of the chapters leave off with cliffhangers which make you want to read just one more chapter (actually two, though, considering you have to read a chapter with the other character first). This pattern can get a bit tiring after a while, and it would have been nice to have another viewpoint character to liven things up a little bit.
One other aspect of Keyes's writing that also got a bit annoying was his tendency to open a chapter with either Ben or Adrienne knocked out or asleep, and having to have the events of the last little while explained to them. It happened three or four times, and while it can be a valid technique at times, I think it should be used sparingly. It's almost as annoying as constantly starting chapters in the middle of the action and explaining how they came about in flashback. Thankfully, Keyes doesn't go that far. With the exception of these little things, though, his prose is decent. There were no turns of phrase that made me shiver in appreciation, but he didn't make any real mistakes either. It's a pleasant read that grabs you and holds on to you.
While the historical characters are done well, I can't quite say the same thing for the other incidental characters. The French chief of security, Torcy, isn't too bad though he doesn't get a lot of characterization until the end. Adrienne, of course, is fleshed out greatly, but her scientific companions (especially Fatio) don't get much. This is a shame, because Fatio is actually the driving force behind the fiendish plot and it would have been nice to get a little motivation from him. We get the picture that he is a former student of Newton's and they had a falling out, but that's it. It's unclear who survives the book (except Newton and Franklin, of course) so we don't even know if they will appear in the next books to flesh out their characters a little bit. It's a shame, because they could have been interesting. Newton's philosophical companions suffer from sounding much the same, with only MacLaurin's Scottish brogue distinguishing him from the rest (except for the woman, of course). All in all, they get just enough characterization to do their jobs, but not enough to always be interesting.
This is a very plot-driven book. Two main characters drive most of it and they are what makes the plot interesting. You can feel Ben's horror as he realizes what he's done and tries to take steps to rectify it. Adrienne is trapped in a situation not of her devising, and she has to decide whether to be the queen or the pawn in the situation. Then again, if she can work things right, she can be one of the players instead of one of the pieces. There's something else lurking in the background, just waiting to jump out and make their decisions moot. There are some questions that are left hanging (just who is Bracewell and what was he doing with Ben before Ben made his discovery that made him dangerous?), but they may be explained in the next book. Then again, circumstances in this book make it so that's not very likely.
All in all, Newton's Cannon is a very good first book and will definitely make you want to go further. It's not your normal alternate history, but rather a historical fantasy. People who don't like alternate history should not necessarily stay away from it. It just uses a historical background to make the setting easier for both author and reader. It's well worth picking up.
David Roy
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on 22 July 1999
I bought this book, simply because I needed something to read on a long trip. As soon as I started reading, however, I realized this was more than simply a way to kill some time. I read it during every free minute I had, and after finishing it, immediately started reading Book 2: A Calculus of Angels. Both were amazing stories, explaining mystical arts with mathematical formulae, something I had never seen done before. This series is a must-read for the scientific-minded and fantasy-lovers alike.
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on 27 June 1999
I was utterly amazed at how much I enjoyed this book. I got it as some light reading and finished it in one day. The characters are well-developed, the plot is engrossing and the history and science are easily understandable but accurate. A wonderful book, and an author I'll be watching.
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on 21 November 1998
I'm not into alternative history at all. As a matter of fact, I normally would have found the subject matter very boring. However, this book was awesome! I'm not a huge fantasy fan, I dabble in it here and there. I actually had to read this book so I could write a book review on it for a newspaper internship I had. But once I started it, I couldn't stop reading. The characters were well develpoed and exciting. There was even a great female character (and that's rare when the author is male). This is a must read.
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VINE VOICEon 9 February 2010
Perhaps I should say, first off, that I am not entirely a fan of alternate history. But sometimes, I do like to read something a bit different to traditional fantasy, and I thought Newton's Cannon might well fulfil that desire for me.

It's not that Newton's Cannon is a bad book. The plot is interesting, and moves along at a brisk pace. Some readers might find it annoying that most chapters end on a cliff-hanger, (and then follow with a completely different character's point of view) but I wasn't overly bothered by it.

What failed to win me over, in the end, was simply the characters. I never really grew to like any of them, and eventually I came to realize that it didn't matter to me what was happening to them. Knowing that Newton's Cannon is the first book in a series of four, there didn't seem much point in forcing myself to the end (as I had no intention of reading the rest of the series). I quit at around page 200.
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on 9 March 1999
This book was very good. The characters were well developed. I especially liked Crecy, the strong, silent women protector of Adrienne, the "queen of France". The plot is full of all sorts of twists and turns. The setting was illustrated in vivid detail for the reader. My favorite things about the book was that it was a strange form of history that takes an educated mind to write. The other part of the book I liked was all the clever gadgets. Gadgets like the aetherscrieber and the kraftpistol. Over all this book was a beautiful book.
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on 24 June 1998
History is a fascinating subject and all of the "what if's" are even more fascinating. In this very well researched and written book we are faced with "what if Newton's genius took him in another direction?" The characters of Newton, Franklin and Louis XIV are extremely well developed. The portrayal of Adriene and her delima of being a woman with a brain is a special touch I appreciate very much. It shows the author's sensitivity of the issues women have faced through history. I reccommend this book and cannot wait for the next one.
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on 10 March 2010
It's almost steampunk but with less cast iron and more gold-leaf encrusted baroque cherubs - steame punke?

The seventeenth century is a fascinating period of history anyway, and having read the (factual and highly recommended) The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes and the excellent Quicksilver trilogy by Neal Stephenson, I felt I had already 'met' many of the characters, but I was entertained and excited by this book as much as if I hadn't. I will be buying the rest of the series, put it that way.
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on 3 February 1999
An incomparably complex and intricate masterpiece of literature, Keyes' novel meshes together myriad plot elements and characters expertly, each ingenious factor contributing to the remarkable network of events which is Newton's Cannon. A work of absolute brilliance, to shame Keyes' former Forays into the literate art, masterful as they may have been. Undoubtedly one of the premier works of fiction ever written.
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on 1 October 1998
I thoroughly enjoyed the story and found it hard to put down. One flaw in this book, however, was the ending. It almost seemed that the author had hit the number of pages promised and tried to tie up all the loose ends in five pages. I realize that this is the beginning of a series and some loose ends are actually needed but I don't see that it was necessary to finish so abruptly.
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