[newtonscannon.gif]NEWTON'S CANNON by J. Gregory Keyes
Published 1998 by The Ballantine Publishing Group
ISBN# 0-345-43378-5 (Mass Market Paperback)
ISBN# 0-345-40605-2 (Trade Paperback)
Reviewed November 28, 1999

This is a book that should have been better. The author is clearly a skilled writer, adept at characterization and world-building, but his plotting follows such dark twists that that which begins as escapist adventure turns into a very dark story indeed. I suppose my disappointment may have far more to do with the fact that the ending is far different than what the reader is lead to believe -- and not in a good way.

Keyes presents an alternate 18th century Europe, in which the sciences we know are secondary to true alchemy. Sir Isaac Newton unlocks the secrets of a substance called Philosopher's Mercury, allowing a whole new science to spring up around the manipulation of the four elements. Part of the charm of the book is the technologies the author envisions as arising from functional alchemy, such as the aetherscribers -- a sort of primitive fax machine that functions on the "affinities" between crystal plates that are tuned to each other's vibrations.

The main story begins in colonial Boston in 1720, where we are introduced to a fourteen-year-old Benjamin Franklin who is apprenticed to his brother, a printer. He is already an inventor, with a knack for getting himself into trouble (as is common with the boy heroes of such books). While tinkering with an aetherscriber, he discovers a method of tuning the device to receive messages from other scribers, and intercepts a correspondence he believes to be coming from the English war effort against France. Ben assists the unknown scientists with a problem they are having, and only later discovers to his horror that he has in fact been helping the French build a weapon of some sort to use against the English.

The book has two concurrent stories throughout, following Ben as he eventually journeys to London, as well as the events in the court of King Louis XIV -- the other side of Ben's initial correspondence. It is an interesting method of plotting, as the two stories touch each other only infrequently, and to a great extent read almost like two separate novels. In the end it sets itself up for a sequel -- as the overarching story is clearly not finished -- but it does so in such a way that the author will have to perform linguistic miracles to bring the familiar main characters back into the story.

Ultimately, the ending killed it for me. This book is tightly plotted, well written, richly detailed, and populated with interesting, fully realized characters. If I ultimately read the sequel, this may fare better in retrospect as a set up for that later story; but on its own, the fatalistic ending ruins what otherwise could have been a five-star book.


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