In his debut novel The Quantum Thief (2010), Hannu Rajaniemi pulled off a remarkable juggling act, switching between subplots at a breathless pace while throwing in mind-boggling ideas by the handful. At heart a rambunctious heist story with a compelling cast, it also gave us a wonderfully imaginative posthuman future, featuring such treats as ambulatory Martian cities and warrior cultures descended from MMORPG guilds. A merciless believer in showing and not telling, Rajaniemi kept his readers working hard to stay on top of the story, and it was worth the effort. Even when the unremitting stream of hard-physics concepts got a little dizzying, their implications within the book's world were tangible enough to allow a patient reader to learn that world's rules and piece together the narrative chain of events as they went along. In a nutshell, it was demanding, mind-bending, and fun.
The Fractal Prince, as book two in what is set to be a trilogy, has the difficult job of building on the first's successes while pushing into new territory. No time is wasted on recapping the story so far, so I wouldn't rate the chances of any reader coming to it cold, and even those who kept up with The Quantum Thief might struggle this time around. It is even more ambitious a novel than the first on many fronts, but this comes at the expense of some of The Quantum Thief's best qualities—in particular, the balance it struck between big galactic politics, jargon-saturated description, and comprehensible action.
This time, with both the politics and the jargon amped up, comprehensibility often loses out. For example, when a chapter that reveals several key plot points begins, "The Sobornost fleet falls upon the quantum filth from the shadow of the cosmic string" (p. 136), and only gets more trigger-happy with the technobabble from there, the pivotal information embedded in the scene risks getting lost entirely.
The expansion of the dramatis personae also makes things more convoluted than necessary. In The Quantum Thief, the reader was made aware that much of the action was being driven by the murky machinations of the Sobornost (uploaded consciousnesses with godlike powers, split into vast armies consisting of millions of copies of themselves), but their workings were filtered through the escapades of protagonists Jean and Mieli. This anchored the plot in sympathetic human characters and their struggles: Jean's to steal back his own memories, Mieli's to rescue her girlfriend. In The Fractal Prince, Rajaniemi broadens both the scope and the stakes by giving us a lot more of the Sobornost, but without the same tight focus it is harder to keep up with or care about their schemes.
When the protagonists have the stage, it's to mixed effect. Gentleman thief Jean le Flambeur is this time on a mission to steal the first ever copy of the first Sobornost god, with the help of Mieli and her ship Perhonen. Jean is always fun to read, getting the best lines—"On the day the Hunter comes for me, I am killing ghost cats from the Schrödinger Box" (p. 7)—and pulling off a seemingly endless series of tricks and disguises to advance his plans. But for all that they're very stylish and entertaining, the whys and wherefores of his antics are caught up in the obscure schemes of the Sobornost, rendering them similarly baffling.
By contrast, Mieli's sections are utterly absorbing. A super-enhanced space warrior from the Oort Cloud, she was the most empathetic character in The Quantum Thief, acting against her independent, principled character in the service of a Sobornost goddess in the hope of getting back her trapped lover, Sydän. And whereas the first book left a lot of her past shrouded, this one brings it to vivid life, showing us key moments such as Mieli and Sydän falling in love as they build enormous ice sculptures in space, "just to show that there was something valuable to be made from the crude stuff that the diamond minds no longer cared about, big icy middle fingers held up to the prissy gods of the Inner system" (p. 183). Amongst all the politicking of said gods, the image of these two women making art for art's sake in the darkness is a beautiful and welcome one, and makes Mieli's quest all the more compelling.
There is also a new character at the heart of this novel: Tawaddud, daughter of an elite family on Earth, desperate to prove herself to her family and help protect her city from the Sobornost—no easy task when she's been rejected by her father for having an affair with a murderous jinn. Like Mieli, she is a fully fleshed character under severe pressures, and her story provides both an emotional core to the events that take place in the novel's main setting, the city of Sirr.
In The Quantum Thief, Rajaniemi brought his characters together in a dazzling centerpiece of a setting, the Martian city of Oubliette, where time is currency and memory a public commodity that can be shared or locked by individuals. The setting was both inventive, providing a refreshing take on the mind-uploading motif, and pertinent (I can't have been the only reader to get chills when Facebook rolled out its Timeline feature a year after the book was first published). In The Fractal Prince, the central conceit is to build on the model of the One Thousand and One Nights, both in terms of setting and narrative structure, and so the novel brings us to Sirr, the only human city left on an Earth ravaged by rogue nanotechnology known as "wildcode."
Sirr is basically a cyberpunky Arabian fantasy-land, and as such trades somewhat too much on clichés—"Abu had summoned a carpet to take them home—he did have jinni bodyguards, after all" (p.83)—to match the Oubliette's ingenuity. The jinni in question might be disembodied human consciousnesses, trapped in devices that harness their energy, and the flying carpets might be sheets of "expensive utility fog uncorrupted by wildcode" (p. 148), but the way these concepts are shoehorned into somewhat uncomfortably Orientalist imagery makes the setting feel forced and limited.
What is much more impressive, however, is the application of the One Thousand and One Nights motif to the novel's narrative make-up. It uses several of the Nights's devices, starting with a frame story and filling its pages with embedded tales, repetitions, tricksy narrators, transformations, and disguises. The rapid-fire switching of narrative voices, and the way Jean speaks in first person while everyone else's story is narrated in third, took some getting used to in The Quantum Thief; here it feels completely appropriate, and is used to play some neat tricks. Without wanting to give too much away, I'll just say that the sudden shift from third to first person in one of the narrative threads makes for an excellent reveal.
Continuing the One Thousand and One Nights theme, the finest idea in the book is the use of storytelling as a way to trade consciousness with others, so that—in this world driven by information and thought—stories-within-stories become a science-fictional plot device. This works both ways: jinni can steal bodies by telling stories to unsuspecting listeners, thus entering their minds, while characters like Tawaddud can use stories from her own life to enter the minds of jinni and get the information she needs. That the embedded stories are often key fragments of the characters' own lives, thus providing illuminating backstory at the same time as advancing the action, is especially elegant.
For fans of intricate storytelling, all of this provides a dream of a structure, and yet I couldn't enjoy the reading of it as much as I wanted to. I still wanted to know what would happen to the characters, and explore more of the world, but my overall impression is of an admirably ambitious, over-complicated sequel that doesn't stand up particularly well on its own. It remains clear, though, that Rajaniemi is a virtuoso idea-smith, with a flair for stylish imagery and clever literary architecture, and so I remain doggedly optimistic about book three.
Tori Truslow grew up in Bangkok and is a graduate of the Warwick MA in Writing. She currently lives in the UK, where she writes and runs workshops for young people and adults. Her fiction has sold to Polluto, Clockwork Phoenix 3, Paraxis, and the Speculative Ramayana Anthology, and she has reviewed for the New Jersey Star-Ledger, Sabotage Reviews, and the New York Review of Science Fiction.