In this series, we have The Quantum Thief, The Fractal Prince, and The Causal Angel. There is so much to love in Hannu Rajaniemi’s books. It is almost an embarrassment of riches. It would’ve been enough if he could tell a good tale, and he does. It would be enough if he had rich, vibrant, palpable detail in his books and he does. It would be geeky cool if he could toss off some references to quantum theory and, oh, does he. It would be coolly retro if he could loosely base a character on a 19th century French gentleman thief (Maurice Leblanc’s Arsène Lupin), and he does. It would be amazing if he could have a spaceship that has more personality than its captain, and he does. The truly stunning accomplishment of this series is that he melds all of this together as a seamless whole that makes sense. I could thoroughly enjoy the descriptions of Game Theory puzzles without ever knowing anything about Game Theory, Hawking drives without knowing anything about blackhole event horizons, and gentlemen thieves without ever having read M. LeBlanc. Knowledge of those things certainly adds layers of enrichment, but it is not essential to enjoying the story. I fear that a number of people might be intimidated by Hannu Rajaniemi’s series due to the sheer volume and esoteric nature of Mr. Rajaniemi’s references. You really do have everything here, whether it’s a an aside to Sherlockian quote or references to particle physics, string theory, game theory, quantum mechanics and logic puzzles. It is a geek’s paradise, but not reserved strictly for geeks. In other words, you do not need to get every reference to enjoy this book. Does it add some to the experience? Absolutely. May the book be thoroughly enjoyed without it? By all means.
In this post, I’ll review The Quantum Thief with separate posts reviewing the subsequent novels.
So it all begins with our gentleman thief in a dilemma prison playing out endless iterations of a dilemma. It is a game he cannot win; one in which failure means being shot and going through the process that entails. Yet he is “resurrected” in this virtual world to play again and again. This isn’t hell, but it’s the next best thing to being there; it makes Groundhog Day look idyllic. He’s set free by an Ooratian warrior and her trusted AI-enabled ship. The adventure begins. (For a slightly more detailed synopsis, go here.)
What is it I love so much about the books and, in particular, The Quantum Thief? Let’s break it down a bit: the narrative is the poster-child of epic. It is writ over a large canvas of the solar system (and many virtual worlds). It is peopled with a variety of types of creatures, virtual and otherwise, from deeply different cultures. The stakes are high, eventually with the continued existence of the universe on the line. You get some sense of that in this book, but it becomes even more apparent in the rest of the series. The action is clever, varied and “right-paced”: some fast-paced and some providing exquisite detail. The dialog is perfectly fitted to the characters, efficient in use (not a lot of wasted dialog) and, once again, clever.
Despite the author’s penchant for detail, for tossing in pop science and cultural references left and right, and for building this very descriptive set of events that occur, his story still moves quickly. We have lots of terrific detail, we have lots of great characters and we have a plethora of side references, none of which slow the story down. Indeed, they help move it forward. Now, this is a story in which you could easily get bogged down. If, for example, you wanted to tie back to every referenced item or needed to thoroughly explore certain references in great detail, you will likely become side-railed (in a lovely way) but it could distract from the storyline. For me, what made the most sense was to move forward with the story, often listening to the audiobook, and then going back and reading the section over again and exploring the references in which I was most interested. Again, you do not have to do that to enjoy the story, but I really love this story and am inordinately curious about science, literature, geek culture and just about everything. Listening to the story and going back allowed me keep the thread of the narrative whilst experiencing a deeper and richer story and universe. This is atypical of my experience with books. most books don’t contain as many layers. It is rare that I have an opportunity read a book that intersects such a range of interests in such a delightful way; I do not begrudge the opportunity to go through the book again. In other words, I put more effort into this book than most and was amply rewarded. I did, however, pick and choose my “deeper dives” versus a quick reference.
As a bit of an aside, for the quick references, reading on my Kindle made this effortless. When I came on across a new (to me) but not-invented term, I would simply highlight the word and a pop-up giving a dictionary definition or a summary from Wikipedia would appear. I could find out about the term and move on now. There are number of artificial but derivative terms that this process also helped identify. As far as I know there’s no such thing as Hawking drives, but there is a related concept, Hawking radiation, and that ties into how the Hocking drives work. I love it when I learn more about our world from reading about an invented one. By the way, the worlds of Jean le Flambeur do get a little complicated and hard to follow, here’s a helpful reference wiki.
The Quantum Thief is world creation par excellence. The worlds and their related cultures are detailed with care, using the story, action and dialog to bring out their details. Now, it is interesting to see that there were a number of reviews, at least on Amazon, that loathed the book. One of the recurring themes is that the author will use unexplained terms. He’ll embed in a dialog or description of action a new term, say, q-dots, without telling you what they are. Mr. Rajaniemi’s typical M.O. is to use the term, provide enough context to hint at the basics of what it means and provide exposition through dialog or description later. My guess, and mind you, it’s just a guess, is that by the time he does give a more thorough explanation of a term or concept, you’ve had enough hints that the explanation takes less time than it might otherwise. While this is frustrating for some, it allows the maximum understanding of a term with a minimal effort, thus avoiding dragging the story down with exposition. Admittedly, the delay can be maddening (hence the reviews) but with all of the new ideas he introduces, this story would drag and the books would be the size of Patrick Rothfuss’ or George R. R. Martin’s books. Mr. Rajaniemi leans on the densely packed but slightly delayed side of things.
Not only are the relationships well-developed over time, not only are they multidimensional and complex, not only do they include the love-hate relationship that often happens between people, but where there are shifts, nuances, changes, or re-mappings of relationships, they all fit in the context of the narrative. Any movement among relationships help drive the narrative as well as help bring sense to the characters involved. It is not as if the changes are inevitable, that they are part of some fatalistic plan on what “must have” happened throughout the story. But they make sense. They are not simply there for their own sake, but help make sense of the narrative drive of the story, of where it’s going, what’s going to happen next, and who’s involved in what way at what time. Even when those characters that we come to love die a sad and lonely death, that even makes sense. There is love and loss, there is heartbreak and hope, there are jaded elements as well as true trust amongst the character, much of which comes from the most unlikely sources. In the Quantum Thief, I love the relationships between Jean, Mieli, and Perhonen. Love/hate, trust/watchful, and humorous/serious facets of their relationships come out at different times. The intricate social relationships amongst members of the Oubliette and the Zoku are a sight to behold. The whole ritual of how much Gevulot to open or how much to pass on to the exomemory are intriguing. Living in the Oubliette is one long, careful dance.
You want characters? It’s got ‘em. Of course you have a whole universe of foreign souls with which to populate the story. When you have lots of canvas on which to paint, “new” and “various” are the watch words of the day. While Mr. Rajaniemi draws on a ton of reference material, make no mistake: his story, world and people are all quite new. For example, while we see an almost steampunk society in the Oubliette of Mars, we also see a hint of Regency England and more than a hint of a unique future world. We see an oddly communal society in the Zoku based on areas of interest. Later on in the series, you’ll see a whole society built on Arabian culture from Earth full of Jinn and wild stories. In all of this, you always have the question of whether you’re in the physical or virtual realm, even a world within world. This keeps you on your toes. So you have many cultures and worlds all interacting to move the story along while giving context for characters to grow and relationships to blossom.
As you can probably guess from the above, this is one of my favorite books and favorite series. There is very little not to love with a whole lot to love. It is the book of a renaissance man hitting all of the buttons of things I love, hitting a few I didn’t even know I loved and doing so within the context of great story and relationships.
So what do I not like about the book? Chirp, chirp, chirp – I’m having trouble coming up with much but one of my favorite characters dies in the series and I hate that.
As I indicated above, I listened to the audiobook. Because it’s dense material, I don’t recommend that be your only way of taking in the content, despite it being an excellent recording. Scott Brick does his usual fabulous job narrating. Mr. Brick is up there in the pantheon of favorite narrators and hits all the right notes on this one. His pacing, emphasis, and enunciation are nearly flawless, which is a particularly challenging feat since it’s loaded with technical material and new terms. The good news is that he also narrates The Fractal Prince. The bad (and, quite frankly, puzzling) news is that he does not narrate A Causal Angel. More about this switch and the narration here.
I cannot commend this book and series enough.