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Review of Newton's Cannon by

Newton's Cannon

by Greg Keyes

I have fond memories of this trilogy from my youth. Or, more likely, of parts of this trilogy, both because in my rebellious heyday I read things out of sequence like it was nobody's business (because it wasn't) and because my library is very fond of buying books 2 and 3 but not book 1. So I can't recall if I ever read Newton”s Cannon, but it seemed like a good place to restart my journey through the Age of Unreason. Finding it for 30 p at a library sale was just icing on the cake—it even has that sweet transparent jacket cover for paperbacks that many UK libraries use!

But I digress.

As a mathematician, I am required to be fascinated by Isaac Newton. You should be too, even if you aren’t a mathematician. The man was incredible. In addition to his contributions to math, physics, and astronomy, he was also the head of the Royal Mint and of the Royal Society. He was also, by all reports, a bit of a dick towards his friends and peers. And don't you dare get in a priority dispute with him, because he will cut you, and then he’ll write the anonymous review congratulating the report (by a committee he heads up) that finds in his favour.

Still digressing.

It’s an open secret, though, that Newton had some strange ideas. He saw his contributions to astronomy and optics as interesting hobbies, but he was really keen on alchemy and mysticism. In this series, Greg Keyes seizes upon this as the jumping-off point for a creative alternate history: what if our universe actually worked in the alchemical, classical sense of Greek and Renaissance descriptions? Gravity is merely one of many “affinities” that matter displays; rather than vacuum, we really do have luminiferous aether, and electric lights are instead devices that separate aether and lux. In this world, philosopher-alchemists create cannonballs that turn the walls they hit into glass and pairs of machines (aetherscribers) that communicate instantaneously with each other across the world.

Newton’s Cannon follows two protagonists: a young Benjamin Franklin and Adrienne de Mornay de Montchevreuil. Yep, Benjamin Franklin. Only after he gets himself in trouble with a nefarious warlock-type dude, Benjamin flees Boston for London, hoping to apprentice himself to Isaac Newton, who at this late stage in his life has entered a rather deep episode of paranoia. Meanwhile, in France, Adrienne hides her “improper” (for a woman) interests in science, acting as the supposedly bored secretary to an overzealous mathematician who hopes to drop a comet on London. She catches the eye of an immortal Sun King, Louis XIV, who has plans to make her his wife. Before Adrienne can refuse, she becomes involved in a conspiracy to kill the king.

Keyes mixes the historical animosity between English and French with the pressures and changes brought about by Newton's discoveries. Louis’ lengthy reign has prompted rebellion, in addition to the war with England, resulting in a France strained to the limit. Newton's discoveries have attracted the attention of strange, inhuman entities—creatures we might call angels and demons—whose intentions towards humanity are far from good. Throughout the book, we get the sense that everyone (except maybe Newton) is messing with forces beyond their understanding.

Both storylines take a while to get going. Ben spends a great deal of time trying to work at his brother’s printing shop before plot conspires to ship him off to London. Likewise, Adrienne spends a lot of time orbiting movers and shakers before becoming one herself. It’s hard for me to say which one interested me more; I suppose what kept me going was just curiosity regarding the bigger picture. In that respect, Newton’s Cannon remains coy. Much changes, but very little is revealed about what is happening behind the scenes.

It’s worth sticking out. There’s plenty of action scenes to keep one’s interest going. But the payoff is less than what I expected, considering the very cool world Keyes has created here.


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