The Quantum Thief: Unique and interesting, sometimes confusing

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi science fiction book reviewsThe Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

As an avid fan of high/epic/military fantasy, I generally don’t find myself reading much sci-fi. That said, The Quantum Thief has definitely convinced me that I should insert some more space opera into my to-read shelf. On the whole, The Quantum Thief turned out to be a highly promising novel that leaves me wanting more. The premise of the book is interesting, and the setting has some fantastical elements that feel delightfully unique. Furthermore, the storyline was highly engaging and suspense kept pulling me on throughout the novel, while the prose is adequate, if not particularly spectacular. However, The Quantum Thief has a few weaknesses that prevent me from loving it.

The first book of the JEAN LE FLAMBEUR series, The Quantum Thief is Hannu Rajaniemi’s debut novel, the story of the thief Jean le Flambeur who, caught during some bungled burglary, is languishing in prison. Our protagonist begins trapped in the notorious Dilemma Prison, a place where prisoners are faced with a choice every day in a running simulation: kill a fellow inmate or help them. After years, an agent named Mieli is deployed by the ruler of a faraway empire to extract Jean for purposes of her own. Namely, Jean’s benefactor wants him to complete a job for her. Unfortunately, it is discovered that Jean has lost most of his memory, so following their escape, Jean and Mieli land in a city on the now-colonized Mars and attempt to discover Jean’s past. This storyline is interrupted throughout by the tale of one Isidore, a private investigator based on Mars who has been hired to foil Jean le Flambeur’s thievery. Things only get more interesting as we meet more and more chararacters from Jean’s past on Mars. As the novel progresses, it becomes clear that both Jean and Isidore are pawns in a larger game, a conflict between empires and cultures far away…

One of my favorite aspects of The Quantum Thief is, without question, the setting. While Rajaniemi’s world building isn’t quite as mature as I would like, there are numerous fascinating facets to the post-apocalyptic solar system he has created. For one thing, Earth has almost completely collapsed — in fact, there is only one major human settlement left on the entire planet, and we don’t even visit it in this book. Mars is a former human colony, a kingdom whose subjects overthrew its government years ago; the walking city on its surface is a world of privacy and equality. There, time is currency, and after a citizen has spent all his/her time, he/she is turned into a conscious machine to serve the city for a length of time before finally reverting back to human form. In a way, death is the great equalizer on Mars, except it’s a death from which we can return. I could go on, but you’ll really just have to read The Quantum Thief to get more.

Now, while the plot is certainly engaging, the main problem I have with The Quantum Thief is that the story is complicated and, in a way, inaccessible. This is evident from the very beginning of the novel — Hannu Rajaniemi throw us into the story without warning or introduction. Many concepts such as “gevulot” or “tsaddik” are introduced but never explained, leaving us to cluelessly ponder their purpose and facility. Moreover, as the story marches on relentlessly, the plot gets more and more tangled, to the point where it feels as if there’s simply too much going on for me to keep track of and I begin to get hopelessly confused. Partially, I feel that this has to do with Rajaniemi’s lack of explanation for certain actions — things happen, but are never explained until much later. In addition, Hannu Rajaniemi inserts numerous obscure cultural and physics references that go far beyond my understanding of theoretical physics, thus making certain concepts in the novel inaccessible to some audiences.

In conclusion, while The Quantum Thief does possess originality, it’s worth reading only if you can stomach a winding plot and a healthy dose of confusion. That said, once you get into it, the story becomes vastly more entertaining, but my concern is that it may be difficult to get into. If you’re interested in physics or science and happen to like sci-fi and space opera, though, this is the book for you.

Publication Date: May 10, 2011. Jean le Flambeur is a post-human criminal, mind burglar, confidence artist, and trickster. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his exploits are known throughout the Heterarchy— from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of Mars. Now he’s confined inside the Dilemma Prison, where every day he has to get up and kill himself before his other self can kill him. Rescued by the mysterious Mieli and her flirtatious spacecraft, Jean is taken to the Oubliette, the Moving City of Mars, where time is currency, memories are treasures, and a moon-turnedsingularity lights the night. What Mieli offers is the chance to win back his freedom and the powers of his old self—in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed. As Jean undertakes a series of capers on behalf of Mieli and her mysterious masters, elsewhere in the Oubliette investigator Isidore Beautrelet is called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier, and finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man named le Flambeur…. The Quantum Thief is a crazy joyride through the solar system several centuries hence, a world of marching cities, ubiquitous public-key encryption, people communicating by sharing memories, and a race of hyper-advanced humans who originated as MMORPG guild members. But for all its wonders, it is also a story powered by very human motives of betrayal, revenge, and jealousy. It is a stunning debut. The Quantum Thief is a Kirkus Reviews Best of 2011 Science Fiction & Fantasy title. One of Library Journal’s Best SF/Fantasy Books of 2011.

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KEVIN WEI, with us since December 2014, is a Math-Stat and Economics major at Columbia University. Secretly, Kevin has always believed in dragons. Not the Smaug kind of dragon, only the friendly ones that invite you in for tea (a href="http://www.fantasyliterature.com/fantasy-author/funkecornelia">Funke’s Dragon Rider was the story that mercilessly hauled him into the depths of SF/F at the ripe old age of 5). Kevin loves epic fantasy, military SF/F, New Weird, and some historical fantasy; some of his favorite authors include Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, China Miéville, Django Wexler, and Joe Abercrombie. In his view, a good book requires not only a good character set and storyline, but also beautiful prose — he's extremely particular about this last bit. Outside of his SF/F life, Kevin loves politics, the startup lyfe, non-fiction, and more. You can find him at: kevinlwei.com

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One comment

  1. You captured perfectly why I couldn’t get into this series. Thanks for the insightful review.

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