I'm a big fan of alternate histories, sometimes the weirder the better. Usually they're based on some change in a real-world event: what would happen if Stonewall Jackson wasn't killed by his own men? What would happen if Hitler had successfully invaded Great Britain? Some, however, are a bit more fantastical, and those can be even better. J. Gregory Keyes has created just such a series in his "Age of Unreason" books, the first of which is Newton's Cannon. If the first book is anything to go by, it's going to be a fun read.
In 1681, Sir Isaac Newton has had a startling revelation in his study of alchemy, unleashing "Philosopher's Mercury," which allows people to manipulate the four elements of Earth, Air, Fire and Water. This results things like floating balls of light that make candles obsolete, and powerful weapons as well. Fast-forward to 1720. The French and the English are at war, and King Louis XIV of France demands a weapon that will turn the tide, a weapon so devastating that even he doesn't know what he's unleashed: a device known mysteriously as Newton's Cannon. Over in the Colonies, a young apprentice named Benjamin Franklin has stumbled upon the secret. Using the new devices that allow words to be transferred over vast distances, he stumbles upon a mathematical problem that he has the answer for. But is he helping the English, or is he making a terrible mistake? Whatever the case, somebody's after him, forcing him to flee Boston and get Newton to help him. But there may be more going on than even Sir Isaac knows. Somebody (or something) may be pulling everybody's strings, for its own ghoulish purposes.
Newton's Cannon is a great blend of science, a little bit of magic, and a whole lot of "what-if." The historical characters, while much younger than we are familiar with (we meet Ben Franklin at age twelve), are still fairly recognizable. Ben is very intelligent, a writer and a printer's apprentice to his older brother, James. He's also an inventor, which unfortunately brings him a bit of trouble. The story follows two plot lines, Benjamin Franklin's and that of a woman named Adrienne who becomes involved with King Louis. Occasionally, the viewpoint switches to the king's. For the most part, though, the chapters alternate between Ben and Adrienne with no variance in that pattern. Of course, most of the chapters leave off with cliffhangers which make you want to read just one more chapter (actually two, considering you have to read a chapter with the other character first). This pattern can get a bit tiring after a while; it would have been nice to have another viewpoint character to liven things up a little bit.
One other somewhat annoying aspect of Keyes's writing is his tendency to open a chapter with either Ben or Adrienne knocked out or asleep, and having to have the events of the last little while explained to them. It happens three or four times, and while it can be a valid technique should be used sparingly. It's almost as annoying as constantly starting chapters in the middle of the action and explaining how they came about in flashback. Thankfully, Keyes doesn't go that far. With the exception of these little things, though, his prose is decent. There were no turns of phrase that made me shiver in appreciation, but he didn't make any real mistakes, either. It's a pleasant read that grabs you and holds on to you.
While the historical characters are done well, I can't quite say the same thing for the other incidental characters. The French chief of security, Torcy, isn't too bad, though he doesn't get a lot of characterization until the end. Adrienne, of course, is fleshed out, but her scientific companions (especially Fatio) don't get much. This is a shame, because Fatio is actually the driving force behind the fiendish plot. It would have been nice to get a little motivation from him. We get the picture that he is a former student of Newton's and they had a falling out, but that's it. It's unclear who survives the book (except Newton and Franklin, of course), so we don't even know if they will appear in the next books to flesh out their characters further. It's a shame, because they could have been interesting. Newton's philosophical companions suffer from sounding much the same, with only MacLaurin's Scottish brogue distinguishing him from the rest (except for the woman). All in all, they get just enough characterization to do their jobs, but not enough to always be interesting.
This is a very plot-driven book. Two main characters drive most of it, and they are what makes the plot interesting. You can feel Ben's horror as he realizes what he's done and tries to take steps to rectify it. Adrienne is trapped in a situation not of her devising, and she has to decide whether to be the queen or a pawn. If she can work things right, she can be one of the players instead of one of the pieces. Something else is lurking in the background, just waiting to jump out and make their decisions moot. Some questions are left hanging (just who is Bracewell, and what was he doing with Ben before Ben made his discovery that made him dangerous?), but they may be explained in the next book. Then again, circumstances in this book make that not very likely.
All in all, Newton's Cannon is a very good first book and will definitely make you want to go farther. It's not your normal alternate history but an historical fantasy. People who don't like alternate history should not necessarily stay away from it; it just uses a historical background to make the setting easier for both author and reader. It's well worth picking up.