Quicksilver,the first book in the Baroque Cycle, is set in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries, taking place mostly in England but also in France and the Netherlands. The three main characters are:
Daniel Waterhouse, a natural philosopher and member of the Royal Society
Jack Shaftoe, a street urchin and adventurer
Eliza, a former harem slave who becomes a successful investor and a spy
Several of the secondary characters are historical figures, such as Isaac Newton, Robert Hooke and Gottfried Leibniz.
I usually managed to keep track of the complicated plot, but the best moments in the book were usually in the digressions, I thought, and my favorite plot thread was the one about the Royal Society. I enjoyed this and I think I’ll read the other books eventually, but I don’t feel compelled to read more right away.
[Roger Comstock] “There are all sorts of churches in Amsterdam. Cheek by jowl. Strange as it must sound, the habit has quite worn off on us over the years.
[Daniel] “Meaning what? That you’ve become used to preserving your faith despite being surrounded by heretics?”
[Roger] “No. Rather, it’s as if I’ve got an Amsterdam inside of my head.”
[Daniel] “A what?!”
[Roger] “Many different sects that are always arguing with one another. A Babel of religious disputation that never dies down. I have got used to it.”
“Newton has thought things that no man before has ever thought. A great accomplishment, to be sure. Perhaps the greatest achievement that any human mind has ever made. Very well — what does that say of Newton, and of us? Why, that his mind is framed in such a way that it can outthink anyone else’s. So, all hail Isaac Newton! Let us give him his due, and glorify and worship whatever generative force can frame such a mind. Now, consider Hooke. Hooke has perceived things that no man before has ever perceived. What does that say of Hooke, and of us? That Hooke was framed in some special way? No, for just look at you, Robert —by your leave, you are stooped, asthmatic, fitful, beset by aches and ills, your eyes and ears no better than those of men who’ve not perceived a thousandth of what you have.
Newton makes his discoveries in geometrical realms where our minds cannot go, he strolls in a walled garden filled with wonders, to which he has the only key. But you, Hooke, are cheek-by-jowl with all of humanity in the streets of London. Anyone can look at the things you have looked at. But in those things you see what no one else has. You are the millionth human to look at a spark, a flea, a raindrop, the moon, and the first to see it. For anyone to say that this is less remarkable than what Newton has done, is to understand things in but a hollow and jejune way, ’tis like going to a Shakespeare play and remembering only the sword-fights.”
— Daniel Waterhouse to Robert Hooke