Hannu Rajaniemi’s brings an epic conclusion to the Jean Le Flambeur series in The Causal Angel. He continues to build out his SciFi fueled world in which gentlemen thieves go hand-in-hand with Oortian warriors saving a universe that is on the brink of annihilation at the hand of the All-Defector. While I focused on the complaint of a dearth of explanation for terms introduced in the review of The Fractal Prince (mainly because Adam Robert’s review was so well-written (even when we didn’t fully draw the same conclusions) that I couldn’t bring myself to write a full review. In my review of The Causal Angel, I’ll focus on Mr. Rajaniemi’s detailed, precise and visceral descriptions that help mitigate a need for explanatory passages. In others, I continue my argument from The Fractal Prince focusing on the context of the terms introduced as a viable way to provide much of their meaning. Most of the reasons by I love The Quantum Thief apply here I’ll do this mostly to celebrate well-honed writing. (For a synopsis, go here.)
Please don’t read this review (or the book) if you haven’t already read The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince. While there are no spoilers for those that have, there may be some for those that haven’t. Read them in order, you’ll be lost if you don’t.
One of the hallmarks of good writing is that we don’t simply learn about the world of the story, we inhabit it. We see the rolling grasslands of Rohan as we feel the wind from the White Mountains tousle our hair. We ride the waves in the HMS Surprise as we smell the salt tang in the air. We are swept away in the hustle and bustle of the streets of London as the Artful Dodger weaves around another set of legs to reach in another pocket. The books by Messrs. Tolkien, O’Brian and Dickens all are examples of following Anton Chekhov famous writing advice: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” We see this as well in The Causal Angel. A brief example of a place description is in an introduction to the Gun Club Zoku headquarters: “We drink dark tea in the mahogany-panelled drawing room of the Gun Club Zoku’s copper-and-brass sky-train. It rides smoothly along the bright golden curve of the Club’s orbital ring around Iapetus, fast enough to create a cosy half a g of artificial gravity. Our view of the Saturnian moon’s surface through the large, circular viewports is spectacular. We are above the Cassini Regio, a reddish-brown birthmark that stains the white of the icy surface.” While this passage doesn’t provide enough for you to know about Zokus, let alone a Gun Club Zuko, it does provide a picture of where they gather: a bit of old-world and steampunk.
A starkly different example comes from the intensity of personal combat with dangerous creatures: “The gaki emerge from them slowly, like pale tongues from dark mouths. They are emaciated, withered creatures, except for their swollen bellies, filled with dark blood. They sniff the air, and come down the mountain path, hesitantly at first, then in a loping run. Your katana comes out of its scabbard of its own volition, a sliver of bright silver. The first gaki hisses and swings a scythelike arm at you. Its smell makes you gag: excrement, wet earth and decay. Your katana draws a lightning arc in the air. Ash-coloured liquid spurts out from the stump of the gaki’s outstretched paw. It backs off, clacking its teeth together angrily, yellow eyes burning.” Again, you’ve never met gakis and may not know of katanas (real-world slightly curved, single-blade sword originally used by Japanese Samuri). Despite this, you are clearly embedded in the scene with scary, dangerous wild animals coming at you with clearly described stench traveling with them.
A last example come from a less-personal, grand, and speedy battle in space: “She [Miele] gives her gogols access to the Leblanc’s [Jean’s ship] picotech processors. They grind possible trajectories through Nash engines, and come up with nothing that leads out of the tight cone of raion vectors around her. Nanomissiles hit, a tingle on her skin, dump their viral code payloads into the Leblanc’s systems. She sheds the outer layer of the ship’s armour to get rid of them: it feels like tearing off a scab. It floats around the ship, an expanding cloud of dust. A bigger target: another volley of Gödel bombs and kinetic needles flashes through it. One hyperdense projectile passes right through the ship, uncomfortably close to the Hawking containment sphere.” Now, there are a boatload of neologisms and technical terms floating in this paragraph. Once again, even if you don’t know their precise meanings (and you would by this point of the series), you get a sense of the array of armament, the speed of battle and the competently measured response she takes.
So, rather than provide you comforting albeit a bit boring, exposition, Mr. Rajaniemi provides understanding through iterative contextual descriptions of the term along with the occasional brief exposition. Each time we see the term used, we refine our concept of it. For example, when the word “q-dot” is introduced, you’re simply given: “They are in a q-dot bubble fourteen klicks above the Cleopatra Crater…” From the larger context, you gather that q-dots are substances, they can form a protective bubble that can travel through space keeping you within oxygen. However, the next time it’s you get: “The q-dot sails – concentric soap-bubble-thin rings made from artificial atoms that spread out several kilometres around the ship and can catch sunlight, Highway meso-particles and lightmill beams equally well – look spectacular.” This provides you with a lot more information, not the least of which is that q-dots can form multiple shapes. Later you find that it’s used in wings, torpedos and guns. Now your understanding grows. Just like in real-life. Your aren’t given some long exposition of q-dots but you come to realize, like nanotubes, they are a small, quickly-forming, smart material with lots of applications.
One of the challenges with this approach is that it makes some uncomfortable; we all like to be in the know up front and moving forward with murky knowledge doesn’t feel like a position of strength. Much like real life; I spend much of my days immersed in murk. The other challenge is that it take a bit more work; this requires engaged, active reading to recall the last time you saw that term and determining whether it is related to a real-life something (even if it’s just a side-reference). Also, there are a number of real-life science terms you may need to look up. My view is that this is well rewarded work. These novels combine literature, science and art references with a number of references to the imaginary worlds of Mr. Rajaniemi. The dialog is clear, the action is tightly scripted and well-described and the worlds are mind-blowing. I know I’m more than a bit of a geek, but I actually enjoy learning new real-world things as well as following cleaver references to real-world stuff I geek-out over (like Game Theory). Also, there’s a reference or two I don’t fully get which has little bearing on my being able to follow the over-all story. You don’t need to get everything to be able to understand and function in this literary construct (again, like the real world). So I encourage you to take the challenge, these are brilliant novels well worth the plunge.
I often go between the Audible version and Kindle version of books (using Whispersync for Voice to keep, well, in sync). I did little of that this time. While I own the Audible version, I was disappointed that the publishers switched from the narrator of the first two books in the series, the fabulous Scott Brick, to Roger Wayne. This isn’t a particular hit on Mr. Wayne, but rather a disappointment that the nuanced voice and pronunciations that I came to know and love from one of my favorite narrators was no longer available in the third book. This motivated me to write a plea to publishers to avoid this whenever practicable. Listening to this different voice was too distracting, so I stuck with the Kindle version. Hence, I don’t have much to say about Mr. Wayne’s narration.
I highly recommend this final book of the Jean Le Flambeur series. It was a delight to read.