This one took what seemed like forever to read (but since it spans the onset of the Enlightenment through to today, that's perhaps to be expected). I dipped in here and there, reading a section--a chapter--an hourglass at a time (if you've read it, that will make sense). The black humour, the delightfully anachronistic voice, the historical characterizations...I found it all utterly charming and compelling and altogether unique.
It's tempting to draw comparisons to Vonnegut and Tom Robbins (Jitterbug Perfume
springs to mind, in particular), not just in the whimsy of the prose and unlikelihood of the story's events, but also Morrow's ability to combine sardonic humour with a deep rational humanism. But mostly, Morrow's voice appears to be solely his own and the parallels exist primarily in an ability to condemn religious hypocrisy, ignorance, injustice, and brutality all the while painting scenes rich with humour, complex characters and quirky details.
Of course, I'd be remiss not to mention the device of the narrator--Newton's Principia Mathematica
--cleverly deployed to timeshift the reader through historical events and keep the story galloping along. It's a book written by a book that pays the deepest respect to booklovers and the pursuit of knowledge. (The book war thing--silverfish? egyptian moths? a vacant lot in NYC?--seemed a bit unnecessary and odd, but that was just one off-note in nearly 600 pages of otherwise exhuberantly solid writing.)
The whole thing requires the suspension of disbelief on more than a few occasions, but it's truly remarkable how well the story holds together and makes sense, despite its more outlandish plot twists and turns. Mostly, I think this has to do with the grounding provided by Jennet Stearne's life's mission and her single-minded desire to avenge her Aunt's horrific death by proving, through scientific enquiry, logic and evidence, the fallacy of witchcraft, and the hypocrisy and unspeakable cruelty of the witchhunters. The courtroom scenes are simultaneously gripping and jaw-clenchingly angering, exactly as they should be. Despite Morrow's lilting prose and wide ranging topics (law, government, the founding of America, the laws of physics, the slave trade, Newton, Voltaire, Montesquieu, Ben Franklin ... you name it, it's in here), never does he stray too far from the tragic, real-life events that inspire the novel and its heroine.
And let me finally comment on the ending--a more satisfying one I've not encountered in a novel in some time. Not only is the plot tied up neatly and justice served, but it provides a satisfying denouement, and never seems too neat or contrived.
Solid 4.5 stars from me.