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Newton's Cannon
J. Gregory Keyes
Del Rey Books, 356 pages
Newton's Cannon
J. Gregory Keyes
J. Gregory Keyes was born in Meridian, Mississippi. Part Navajo with an interest in writing and storytelling, he received a B.A. degree in Anthropology from Mississippi State University. He discovered the seeds of Newton's Cannon while researching 18th-century history for his Ph.D.  He and his wife live in Seattle, Washington.  J. Gregory Keyes' other novels include The Waterborn and The Blackgod.

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Past Feature Reviews
A review by S. Kay Elmore

It's the year 1680 and 39-year-old Isaac Newton, Lucasian professor at Cambridge, has just discovered the alchemical secret of Philosopher's Mercury. He publishes the Principia Mathematica with an extensive alchemical treatise and the world is changed. Inventions utilizing the new alchemical sciences abound: scribers that carry messages over vast distances, firearms that shoot bolts of lightening, and lamps that glow steadily with no flame.

Across the ocean in Boston, a boy spies one of these alchemical lamps through an open window. This glimpse into the scientific world fuels the resolve of a young Ben Franklin, already a budding scholar, to pursue his studies while under the apprenticeship of his brother, a printer. With the help of his best friend, John Collins, he makes a discovery that may change the face of Europe. But the discovery attracts the unwanted attention of a dangerous man. Fleeing Boston for his life, Ben lands in London to seek out the patronage of the great Sir Isaac himself.

The English armies are pushing closer to Versailles. Louis XIV, The Sun King, is desperate for a solution to win the war. The weapons of war that the English employ -- using the principles of Newton's alchemy -- are devastating the French army. Louis gathers the greatest philosophical and scientific minds to discover the ultimate weapon -- Newton's Cannon.

Former secretary to Louis' departed wife, Adrienne de Montchevreuil is a genius in her own right. In a time when an educated woman is more a disgrace than an asset, she keeps her knowledge a secret. Appointed to serve as a secretary to the scientists working under Louis' patronage, she finds herself in the centre of the intricacies of the Sun King's Court. Courtiers, pretenders, assassins and a secret society all plot their own devices, with Adrienne entrenched in their midst. She discovers the truth about Newton's Cannon, and must form her own scheme to avert disaster before it's too late.

Alternative history is a game of creative "What if?" and J. Gregory Keyes has played it wonderfully well in Newton's Cannon. His story unfolds in keeping with the known biographies of the principal players. For example, the friends and academic rivals of both Newton and Franklin find cameos in the story. In actual history, Gottfried von Liebniz and Newton, working independently of each other, describe the mathematics of Calculus. In Keyes' history, Liebniz and Newton instead arrive at differing opinions on alchemy. In addition to history, Keyes also gives his due to the great works of historical fiction. Most notable is a clever nod to Alexandre Dumas.

Newton's Cannon is a great read. Rich with intrigue, drama, and a good old-fashioned love story, Newton's Cannon pulled me headlong through a not-quite time-and-place that was at once both extraordinary and very real. I was thoroughly caught up in the action. The urgency of our heroes' crusade invites speed-reading, but I suggest you slow down and savour the story. This is the first book of a series, The Age of Unreason, and with the surprising ending I hope J. Gregory Keyes doesn't keep us waiting too long for the sequel.

Copyright © 1998 S. Kay Elmore

S. Kay Elmore is a graphic artist, writer and corporate wage slave. She edits The Orphic Chronicle, an online magazine, and tries to make ends meet by writing and developing corporate newsletters and web sites.

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