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Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Quantum Thief - Hannu Rajaniemi

If The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes had a baby with The Lies of Locke Lamora and then gave it up for adoption to Neuromancer you would have a pretty good simulacrum for The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi. The book is at its heart a whodunit, or more specifically which whodunit. After finishing the book I'm not sure who did it. But I think that's the point.

The novel begins when a winged woman who talks to god rescues an amnesiac thief named Jean Le Flambeur at the request of her deity and brings him to Mars to remember. Juxtaposing this perspective is the antagonist, Isidore Beautrelet, a detective akin to Sherlock himself who in solving the murder of a chocolatier finds himself set against le Flambeur himself. Told at a breakneck pace the story follows our thief and his winged caretaker as he infiltrates Martian society to rediscover who he was and who he wants to be.

Quantum Thief takes place primarily on a Mars colonized with mobile cities. Technology has evolved to the point the line between artificial intelligence and human intelligence has blurred and an individual's consciousness is no longer singular. Rajaniemi eschews information dumps, and as a result it's easily 200 pages before you have any real understanding of the world his character inhabit. Ideas and words like exomemory, gogols, and gevoluts are pretty abstract terms that he forces the reader to define only through context.

I would be lying if i said such a complex setting did not obscure the plot. Oftentimes concepts that are barely understood become important plot devices. Some might find this off putting, and at times it can be. In that way it compares to the Malazan Book of the Fallen dectet by Steven Erikson. Rajaniemi is writing an intelligent novel for intelligent readers. He is not going to hold the reader's hand, rather he expects that being dropped into the middle of ocean without a lifeboat is perfectly doable. By the novel's conclusion I think he's right.

Not taking the time to educate the reader Rajaniemi frees himself to focus on the story and the prose. The result is a beautifully written book with a compelling plot and interesting characters. More impressively, for a first novel it's extremely tight with very little wasted language. The story is mostly self contained, but ultimately it's just a snapshot in time of a larger story revealed in the epilogue.

In all, The Quantum Thief is one of the better debut novels I've read. Its pacing and crime fiction flavor could lend it appeal to cross genre readers. I look forward to Rajaniemi's subsequent novels.

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