It’s not often a debut novel gathers the attention that greeted the launch of The Quantum Thief two years ago, a book that received critical praise despite its persistent refusal to provide backstory or exposition, forcing readers to immerse themselves in the complicated world of the Oubliette, a walking city on the surface of Mars whose slow march keeps it ahead of the encroaching phoboi infestation, a city visited by the titular Jean le Flambeur, recently sprung from a Dilemma Prison and commissioned to carry out a very special theft within the city.
With the tale of The Fractal Prince, Hannu Rajaniemi takes Jean and his Oortian rescuer Mieli away from the relative comfort of Mars to the Earth city of Sirr, couriered by the flirtatious spidership Perhonen. Sirr is a very different culture to the Oubliette, though with no less traumatic a past; in the first book, there were oblique references to the Spike, the incident in which the planet Jupiter was effectively destroyed. While in one brief chapter in this book we visit the scene of that event and witness the aftermath, we learn little of the circumstance; instead we are teased with the mystery of the cataclysm that shaped Sirr – the Cry of Wrath.
Moving away from the crime thriller feel of their first outing, the flavour here is explicitly Arabian Nights, from the parched desert descriptions to an actual magic carpet ride through the skies above Sirr, stories within stories, and more importantly the truths within those stories that will come back to haunt the present. As in The Quantum Thief, everyone wears masks and assumes personalities, has their own agenda, and nobody can be completely trusted, with even words becoming unreliable; when one character wishes for the backup to arrive soon, it isn’t immediately apparent if they refer to reinforcements or further copies of their own previously downloaded personality.
The complicated relationship between Jean and Mieli develops, but it is Perhonen whose voice and personality grows the most, no longer just a foil for the two protagonists. Of the central characters of The Quantum Thief, the only one absent from this second adventure is the Martian investigative prodigy Isidore Beautrelet, though some of the function he would serve is carried by the dour presence of Sumanguru, an avatar of one of the founders of the Sobernost, a powerful entity who assists the disgraced embodiment slave Tawaddud in her investigation of a murder within the city.
Rajaniemi is resistant to exposition beyond the barest required, but as it is relevant to this story, he grants us not only a fraction of the backstory of Jean le Flambeur, how he was caught and placed in the Dilemma Prison, but also a glimpse of the colossal technologies that exist beyond the backwater of Mars. The engineering of the solar system is more extensive than was previously hinted, with the sun now used as a direct resource, but most terrible is the weaponry, so powerful that all battles are swift but rarely bloody, with the losers reduced to free floating atoms.
With supporting description minimal, the abstraction channels the more fantastical style of Rajaniemi’s chapbook Words of Birth and Death more than that expected of a hard science fiction novel, his prose a shower of images to be felt rather than unambiguous narrative. Unlike the precision of his beloved maths, this book imparts feelings, moods and impressions that brush the edges of comprehension rather than offering specific conclusions, yet when he chooses to elucidate, he does so clearly and concisely, as when he describes the experience of embodiment as “being poured into a different cup.”
Were it to be laid out in a linear fashion, the tangled relationships and betrayals are not overly complicated, but are obfuscated by double identities and a recursive timeline, but it uses the theme of storytelling as a background, experience shared in a different way than the memory transfer of the Oubliette, stories containing stories, laying seeds and traps in minds that can grow to become something more, whether it be the idea that Schrodinger’s cat, a superposition neither alive nor dead, is the closest to a scientific description of a ghost that is possible, or in the depiction of the Oortian sauna, a zero gravity wooden chamber with a floating globe of water, beyond the walls, vacuum, the Dark Man waiting beyond the door, the temptation of his embrace.
When the third volume of the trilogy is published, it is to be hoped that the threads will tie together into a single complete tale, bold and challenging, that provides the answers that both the readers and Jean le Flambeur are hunting for.