On the edges of physical space a thief, helped by a sardonic ship, is trying to break into a Schrődinger box. He is doing the job for his patron, and the owner of the ship, Mieli. In the box is his freedom. Or not. The box is protected by codes that twist logic and sanity. And the ship is under attack. The thief is nearly dead, being is being eaten alive. Jean de Flambeur is running out of time. All of him. And on earth, two sisters in a city of fast ones, shadow players and jinni contemplate a revolution.
And that is the blurb for the follow up to Rajaniemi’s award-winning novel, The Quantum Thief which I whipped off the shelves when it caught my eye – would I enjoy this hard science fiction adventure? Rajaniemi is a Finnish writer with a PhD in String Theory – and his scientific knowledge permeates the world building in this remarkable book.
The thief’s viewpoint is in first person, while Mieli and the adventures of disgraced sister, Tawaddud, the other two protagonists, are told in third person viewpoint. While the thief struggles to open the box, Tawaddud is striving to assist her father in his political manoeuvring by entertaining influential individuals and then roaming the poorer parts of the city and helping those infected with the wildcode. The characters are reasonably successful, although I found I empathised more with Tawaddud and Mieli than Jean, whose enigmatic, tricky persona made him less easy to know and care about.
The other layer of structure running through the book is that much of the narrative is told in the form of stories in the same style as Scheherazade’s tales of a thousand and one nights. I know – it sounds bonkers. And yet, for me, this aspect was one of the main successes of the book. Rajaniemi isn’t a believer in spending time on explaining his world or how it works to the reader – the gismos and terms describing aspects of his world, such as Sobernost, zoku, mutalibun all have to be gleaned through the context of the prose. I would have been cravenly grateful for a glossary, especially in the early stages of the book, given I haven’t read The Quantum Thief. But in the stories – which partly advance the plot and partly highlight the recurring themes of betrayal and revenge, loyalty and power which weave through the book – there is some background and explanation, particularly about Tawaddud and Mieli.
That Rajaniemi is an original writer, pushing the boundaries of science fiction and how narrative works is undisputed. Once I managed to grasp more or less what was going on, I found this an enjoyable read filled with entertaining concepts and underpinned by a story with plenty of tension. However, I do feel Rajaniemi could have, at times, thrown a few more lifelines to his readers that needn’t have compromised his narrative and would have enhanced the reading experience – the longed-for glossary, for example. That said, I recommend you seek him out – but do yourselves a favour, don’t start with Fractal Prince, track down The Quantum Thief. My bad habit picking up a mid-series book as my starting point certainly didn’t help in this case.