As a geek in the traditional (i.e. nerdy) sense of the word I have long been a huge fan of Neal Stephenson’s work. Snow Crash, Diamond Age, Cryptonomicon, REAMDE, Anathem, Seveneves – all highly recommended.
So when I heard that he was doing a time travel story about Elizabethan England? I did something I don’t usually do, I went ahead and got the hardcover.
Should have waited. I think this is the first Stephenson book that I can’t say I recommend. Most of the time, like with Seveneves or Anathem, I’ll ask, “Are you up for the challenge?” Not here, not by a long shot.
Let’s get something out of the way. Shakespeare’s not in this. They do have a visit to Elizabethan England and do meet Richard Burbage and have what I’ll admit is an amusing scene there. But that’s it. There’s some discussion by others about Shakespeare’s work, but that’s it. There’s a bit about the Irish that’s worth another blog post, coming soon. So if, like me, you’re interested in this book for the Shakespeare content? Save your money. There isn’t enough.
The rest of the book isn’t up to Stephenson’s standard. He spends most of his time amusing himself with sophomoric pokes at bureaucracy and government, with various side trip opportunities to describe sexual stuff (like what happens when you put an 1800s prostitute and a Viking warrior in the same room together) that has nothing to do with the plot. He seems so entertained by his own words that he forgot to write a compelling story.
Who knows, maybe I’m just so thrown off by the lack of Shakespeare that I’m being unnecessarily hard on this one. When I described it to coworkers they said, “Sounds entertaining despite itself.” And it was, I’ll give it that. But I don’t go through these books (especially in hardcover!) just to be entertained. I want to get something out of it. I don’t know what I got out of this other than temporary amusement.