Keyes, J. Gregory. 1998. Newton's Cannon. New York: Del Rey.

Reviewed 14 October 1998

Newton's Cannon (cover) This novel is akin to a science-fictional alternate history. Isaac Newton and his contemporaries develop the ancient art of alchemy using "modern" (post-algebra) mathematics to place it on a "scientific" basis. A young Ben Franklin demonstrates his genius by helping one of Newton's former protegés develop . . . but that would be telling, wouldn't it? Suffice it to say that Ben Franklin lets Oppenheimer's genie (or its alchemical equivalent) out of the bottle.

Mr. Keyes has done his homework here. He he neither rigidly equates "alchemy" with either "mysticism" or "chemistry" nor ignores the relationship among the three. This novel is an excellent example for fantasy writers of how doing research on even peripheral matters gives a work credibility. He also succeeds in weaving this new "science" into the attitudes and events of the seventeenth century.

Despite a fascinating premise, the first five chapters or so made me want to throw the book against the wall. They epitomize bad 1930s science fiction--lectures by characters to each other on material they already know that are really infodump lectures to the reader. Character development doesn't begin until chapter 5, and the plot just sits there in suspended animation. It's a sad statement when the advertising copy is better written than the beginning of a novel.

But I persevered, and the writing settled down. Aside: Somebody in marketing at Del Rey deserves a raise—the back-cover copy both accurately represents the contents of the book and helped me want to read past the first few chapters. As an editor myself, I'm normally immune to marketing copy, because I know how it's done. Mr. Keyes, once he puts his pen to it, can tell a good story. Hopefully, the characters will grow as this series progresses, because they don't change much during the course of this book.

This book thus leaves me of two minds. The premise and world construction are extremely well done; the author demonstrates a clear understanding of the historical context; and the plot's logic is consistent with the premise. Yet storytelling just doesn't exist for the first quarter of the book, and the character development is at best glacial. This is one of the times when it's an advantage to know that one is early in a series—I'm inclined to allow a little more stage-setting. At least Mr. Keyes' construction work (unlike the vast majority of that in contemporary fiction, speculative and otherwise) is worth examining by itself!

Overall rating: 3 stars
Good.
This book lives and dies by its premise. It's the beginning of what looks to be a long series (maybe Thomas Jefferson's own genius will surface?). Mr. Keyes is capable of significant work with characters, as demonstrated by his previous work (which, ironically, was flawed in the premise as badly as this book is flawed in the characters). The last third of the book gives me hope for the series' success.


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