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the pathetic caverns - books by author - J. Gregory Keyes

eclectic reviews and opinions

Keyes, J. Gregory

Newton's Cannon

A Calculus of Angels

It's a matter of record that I'm a huge fan of Tim Powers' science fiction/fantasy novels. And while I don't want to suggest that J. Gregory Keyes is overly derivative of Powers, I'm delighted to finally find a writer who, for me, pushes many of the same buttons. The Age of Unreason, which thus far consists of two books, Newton's Cannon and A Calculus of Angels, is a historical fantasy, that, as Powers often does, interweaves actual historical characters -- like Newton, Louis XIV and Voltaire -- with fictional creations. Also like Powers, Keyes establishes some parameters for the operation of the fantasy elements -- in this case, the underlying conceit is that the principles of alchemy are valid -- and thereafter treats them with a fair amount of rigor and consistency.

Keyes also offers a taut, suspenseful plot, with some surprising twists and a delightful refusal to pull punches. His characters are compelling, and more complex than is typical in the fantasy genre. A young Benjamin Franklin is one of the main protagonists, but not a wholly sympathetic character (like the real Franklin, he's a bit of a womanizer; as portrayed in the novels, he's got a lot of maturing to do yet). Tsar Peter becomes one of the antagonists, but his motives are complex, and he is not a completely unsympathetic character. In a nice balancing act, the second volume concludes with an alchemical battle with the reader's loyalties divided between the two sides.

Perhaps Keyes' most memorable character is fictional: Adrienne de Mornay de Montchevreuil is a brilliant young woman in the court of Louis Quatorze with a passionate interest in science, and a member of a secret society, who is unwillingly thrust into an tangle of internicine political turmoil. (One could argue that, sexism being what it is, if a woman like Montchevreuil had existed, her deeds would have gone unrecorded by history books.)

My biggest gripe with the novels is one that's common to many "alternate-history" fantasies: if you posit some sweeping change to the fabric of reality (like the principles of alchemy actually working) it's a bit much to assume that history up to the beginning of the books would have proceeded in much the same way, with the same individuals rising to prominence, so that there was a Ben Franklin, Louis XIV existed and was king of France, and so on. It's a pretty small gripe, all things considered -- and I'd be a fool to let it stop me from enjoying these books. I may well be a fool for other reasons, but I'm eagerly awaiting the third and any future volumes.


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