A disappointing novel, and not at all the "return to form" touted by the publisher. Stone's Fall is a sloppy, half-hearted and poorly planned novel with, really, little point. As adventure it is far too long and far too slow; as an intellectual mystery in the tradition of Name of the Rose, it has little to say of an intellectually stimulating nature.
The first three hundred pages of Stone's Fall consists of slowly developing setup with an unappealing character who has no role (aside from afterthought) in the last 500 pages of the novel. Those last 500 pages have somewhat more in the way of winning characters and plot interest, but there really doesn't seem to be much point to it all. The seeming promise that we'll gain some insight into the "art" behind capital is never delivered on and we're left with a tale of superhuman manipulators, which is frankly far less interesting than a tale of plain old human manipulators.
Reading Stone's Fall, two Neils were strongly called to mind, neither of whom spells it that way. A very long novel that promises to show us something about the workings of international capital can't help but call Neal Stephenson to mind, who explored what he feels are the roots of the modern world system in his Baroque Cycle a few years back.
The comparison in some ways is flattering to Pears--Pears is a far better literary craftsman than Stephenson--he can create believable characters and write good dialog and move a story along without being too obvious with his stagecraft, all of which Stephenson has great problems with in his Baroque Cycle. But one thing that Stephenson has that Pears' novel sorely lacks is a sense of brio and intellectual insight.
The other Neil this novel brought to mind is Niall Ferguson, who has been much concerned in his historical writing with this period and with the same developments which set the stage for this novel--the formation of international capital , imperialist power struggle, and WWI, which is only on the horizon of Stone's Fall, but importantly so.
But with all these great elements at play, about which Ferguson is just full of interesting interpretations, Pears manages nothing much, except perhaps to say that capitalism is about buying cheap and selling dear, and that, ultimately, someone has to bear the burden of being on the wrong side of those deals. And even this delivered weakly.
Too bad really.