A CALCULUS OF ANGELS
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
J. Gregory Keyes ended Newton's Cannon, the first novel in his "Age of Unreason" trilogy, with a bang. Rather than attempt to top the first novel, A Calculus of Angels, examines the results of the destruction which has occurred. Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin are now living in Prague under the auspices of Karl VI, emperor of a much shrunken Holy Roman Empire. Adrienne and Crecy travel with a band of brigands in a post-apocalyptic France. In America, two men from Franklin's past, Blackbeard and Cotton Mather, join forces in an attempt to learn why they have lost all contact, both physical and alchemical with Europe. Finally, with the destruction of the balance of power in Western Europe, Peter the Great sees a chance to expand Russia and gain saltwater ports for his country.
Throughout the majority of A Calculus of Angels, these are separate threads. Whereas Benjamin Franklin had contact with most of the major characters in Newton's Cannon, A Calculus of Angels follows each individual along towards own fate. Chapters, once again, alternate from Franklin to Adrienne to Blackbeard, although the effect is not as disconcerting in A Calculus of Angels as it was in the prior novel.
Two new major characters are added to Keyes's list of dramatis personae: Peter Frisk, a Swedish army captain who has been sent to Prague in an attempt to enlist Franklin and Newton's help against the tsar, and Red Shoes, a Choctaw who joins Blackbeard & Mather's expedition so he can discover the Old World and claim it for the Indians. Red Shoes Indian sensibilities allow Keyes to look at the spiritual world from a different point of view. In Newton's Cannon and much of A Calculus of Angels, the spirit world is bent to fit into a Christian belief structure. Red Shoes looks at the same world and sees it in terms of his own belief system.
A Calculus of Angels does suffer from the same problems as Newton's Cannon. Because Keyes alternates chapters between viewpoint characters and ends many of the chapters with a cliffhanger, the pace of the plotting stutters. Just before a climax is reached, Keyes pulls back and the reader has to wait two more chapters before that particular plot line is again addressed.
Given the post-apocalyptic setting, and the sequences surrounding Adrienne in France are particularly harsh, it is surprising that Keyes completely ignores any sign of a millenialist or apocalyptic movement. A few people comment on God's anger for the destruction in Western Europe, but it is generally accepted with little sign of contrition or real loss by the Europeans.
While A Calculus of Angels can stand on its own, as could Newton's Cannon, it works better in conjunction with the first book in the trilogy, elaborating on events and themes which Keyes has already introduced. While it would have been easy for Keyes to right a typical middle novel, A Calculus of Angels manages to have a beginning, middle and end, which strengthens, not only this novel, but the series as a whole.
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