“You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred year removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed with recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described.”
I think it’s possible I was reading this book in the weeks leading up to the 2016 presidential election, possibly even the morning I walked to go vote. It was cold that morning, and I think I remember feeling a little drained on the book at the time, putting it aside. I even convinced myself to stop reading it, but for whatever reason I ended up buying the sequel on sale, and now feel more compelled.
My second reading is a lot more successful. The book use a kind of antiquated speech and structure to tell a future story. Specifically the primary narrator of the book, Mycroft, speaks with the same basic omnipotence and intrusiveness of an 18th century English novel’s narrator, for me feeling most like a Tobias Smollett or Henry Fielding, but there might also be some Tristram Shandy mixed in.
The novel begins with a house where several of our key figures will become a part of the staff (in a way). A young child named Bridger seems to have the power to manipulate reality and specifically has brought their toy soldiers to life, and the result is that one of them dies. This little moral puzzle ends up having small but instructive influence over many moments in the novel. Mycroft witnesses all this. Mycroft is a servicer, which means a prisoner of the state who is left to wander free, but can be tapped by citizens in a kind of indenture. The idea behind this is from Utopia, but Mycroft’s crime is not revealed until late in the book. Other members of this staff include a spiritual adviser, a “witch”, and the toy soldiers. They have their own jobs and goals in the house, but a lot of the book is so built around explaining about the world and how we all ended up here, that plot, as it exists, is minimal. Even though anything and everything seems to happen. The book also employs (but also discusses) concepts of gendered language, and gender roles in language in various degrees and usually makes for some interesting discussions when it pops up. The title comes from Romeo and Juliet. In a lot of ways, I think this book works to answer the promise made by my reading of Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age, which promised a Neo-Victorian adventure story in the future, but left me feeling somewhat underwhelmed. At the very least, this series has four books that total somewhere in the neighborhood of 2000 pages, so I don’t think I will feel underwhelmed.