What if Alchemy worked? What if Newton - who was
interested in such things - deduced the rules for it as here he did for physics? And what if this new science created new weapons for the wars of the 18th century?
That's the basic premise of the "The Age of Unreason"
series. All four books are out now and my basic review is that the series has been excellent, and I highly recommend it!
1720 - Forty years ago, the great Isaac Newton discovered
the "Philosopher's Mercury" - the alchemical deus ex machina of metals
that makes all things possible. Now, forty years later in France, the war
with England is going badly, as France's fervefactum (blood boiling) guns
are sadly out-ranged by England's new target-seeking cannonballs and their
latest weapon which can transform a fortress's walls to glass. Louis XIV,
saved from death four years earlier by a Persian alchemical potion calls
for a new weapon to be developed.
And across the Atlantic, a young Ben Franklin,
working on fixing his brother's aetherscreiber - an alchemical radio -
manages to do what no one has done before, and gets it to tune to more
than one other machine. Now able to communicate with any other aetherscreiber
in the world, he accidentally "tunes in" on a machine he believes belongs
to one of the members of Newton's Royal Academy, and intercepts a discussion
of a alchemical problem that's been giving the person at the other end
problems for months. In a burst of boyish enthusiasm (and shear genus),
he solves the problem and sends it off, sure that he's just impressed Newton...
...and discovers too late that he's just eliminated the last impediment to France's new weapon – a weapon that will destroy London.
Keyes has an excellent book here. In many ways, it is
similar to Celestial Matters
, where Richard Garfinkle
took the idea of "What if Aristotelian physics was real" and ran with it,
creating an alternate world where that science ruled, creating an Earth
- and a history - wildly different from our own.
Here, Keyes is asking "what if the alchemists were right?"
- but unlike Celestial Matters, the POD is close enough to the current
events of the story that the world, while changed, is still recognizably
our 18th century world. And because it is recognizably our world, Keyes
gets to use real historical figures as his characters - Franklin, Newton,
Louis XIV, etc. - and he does so very well.
He also seems to have a good grasp on the changes his
POD would render to the world. The new alchemical miracle machines (such
as ever-glowing lights, the aetherscreiber, and even a steam-engine of
a sort) are just beginning to make their way into common use. There are
groups (mostly religious) opposed to them as "magic," there are others
- such as Franklin - fascinated by the new "science" and it's possibilities.
And it seems that along with the Philosopher's Mercury,
"demons" may walk the Earth...
I loved the book. If it's got any real problem, it's that
it's the first book of a series (probably a trilogy - everything's a trilogy
these days...) and because of that Keyes is introducing almost too much stuff
to us - stuff that will be useful in the rest of the series, but here make
the book a little cluttered. We've got the primary story of Louis, Franklin,
and the weapon (of which I will only say the primary creator of which -
Fatio - chuckles when he thinks how appropriate it is to call it "Newton's
own cannon"), but then we've also got a secret society of women - the "Korai"
- playing their little power games with some of the main characters, "demons"
running their own mysterious plans, and - heck - even a brief walk-on by
Blackbeard the Pirate, of all people (well, "limp-on," actually). It's
all just that close to being too much.
However, as I said, I loved the book and am looking forward
to the next book in the "Age of Unreason" series.
This is Alternate History writ very large - and very strange...
"A Calculus of Angels"
Following the asteroid strike, Europe is devastated. England is essentially gone, France has collapsed, and much of the rest of the continent is a shambles of war, disease and famine.
Their work with King Louis XIV done - for he called down the asteroid - the "demons," known as "malakim," now move onto Peter the Great, giving him the knowledge of aerial "battleships" with which he is slowly conquering the remains of Europe. Ben Franklin and an increasingly distracted Newton try to stop his slow advance while back in America, an expedition sets out to find out just what happened to Europe.
As Newton withdraws into his near-dementia of research of the "demons," they are forced to retreat again from the armies of Peter the Great, this time to Venice. There seems to be no stopping him - or the "demons"...
...and it looks like the "demons" plan is to destroy mankind...
Okay, it just gets weirder and weirder.
The second book is just as good - if far stranger - than the first. Keyes, having introduced working alchemy in the first book, now shows us "angels" and "demons" that may have the fate of man in their hands. War is stalking the mangled European continent and, quite frankly, it looks like the "demons'" plans to destroy man are going quite well.
"Empire of Unreason"
Ten years after the devastation of Europe by Louis's asteroid, Russia now holds sway over all of the continent. But Tsar Peter has mysteriously disappeared, and his chief alchemist, Adrienne de Montchevreuil - who escaped the ruins of France with the help of an "Angel" - has been attacked by the malakim, who now provide the very foundations of this world's magical "technology."
While in America, Franklin is part of a secret organization, the "Junto" which is dedicated to destroying the malakim and preventing their plan to destroy man
from coming to fruition. And it now seems that America may just be the last chance the world has to avoid its end.
But on the western half of the continent a strange new "prophet," the Sunboy, has appeared, drawing the local tribes to him as a "crusade" to destroy the Europeans in the east. And the pretender James Stewart has landed in America, backed by the Russians, and prepared to rule as the new English King!
The world is in serious trouble...
...and the series just keeps getting better!
Keyes manages to keep all his characters - spread all about the world - actually doing something during this volume, and
manages to make what they're doing have a point as far as the main plotline goes (something Harry Turtledove, I'm afraid to say, seems to have lost the ability to do lately).
As we bounce back and forth between Russia, the American Colonies, and the Northwest we get more clues as to just what
the malakim have planned - and learn that the malakim may be no more unified of purpose than the humans who are both their puppets and their targets.
And at the end of the book, the Americas are losing to Stewart's Russian troops, Adrienne is on the run, trying to both find the Tsar and her son, we catch a glimpse of the malakim's "final weapon" at work - and wonder just how man is supposed to survive...
...wait till the last book and see.
"The Shadows of God"
In the fourth and Final book of the Series the war against man by the malakim is heating up as their puppets march across America.
James Stewart's army marches westwards towards "New Paris" (OTL's Mobile) - where the tired remnants of French royalty play at still being at Versailles - while the Sunboy's heads east towards the same destination. There, Franklin attempts to rally the remnants of the continents armies to a final battle for mankind.
And in the west, Adrienne de Montchevreuil chases after the Sunboy, who may very well be her own lost son, and confronts what he - and she
- truly are.
The last clash of malakim and man approaches and the winners will get to shape the very face of the universe itself!
And Keyes wraps up this series in fine form! Action! Adventure! Mysteries Solved! Even a dash of romance here and there.
He manages to tie up all
the plot-threads he's woven through the series, and tie them up very well. We see the fates of all his main characters, nothing is left hanging, and - darn! - he even comes up with a final battle that's both believable (not easy when your whole story is in a "magic" universe!) and well written.
And the world at the end of the story is a fascinating place!
Buy the darn series already!