(2012) Hannu Rajaniemi, Gollancz, trdpbk, £12.99, 300pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08892-4
Hannu Rajaniemi's The Quantum Thief was praised by many as one of the best debut novels of 2010 (or 2011 in N. America). Here,The Fractal Prince is the sequel, so do check out my review of The Quantum Thief via the afore link. I for one was certainly looking forward to the follow-up.
The Fractal Prince starts where The Quantum Thief left off, with gentleman thief Jean le Flambeur back onboard Mieli's ship the Perhonen. Jean le Flambeur remains having the forceful patronage (or being under the control of) Mieli from the powerful Oort cloud community of post-humans, who in turn has enemies from, in what Charles Stross might call, weakly-good-like post-humans from the inner Solar system. Having had their adventure on Mars, Jean le Flambeur and Mieli are on the way to Earth with Jean whiling away the time trying to open what is in physics terms analogous to a Japanese trick box. All well and good but then suddenly the ship comes under a blistering attack
Unlike its more linearly told predecessor, the narrative of The Fractal Prince includes episodes in the past (but still in our the readers' future) with many of these episodes being inspired by stories from The Arabian Nights: there is even a ride on a magic carpet for goodness' sake, albeit such a high-tech carpet that the technology is indistinguishable from magic to us poor readers. Add this to Rajaniemi's post-singularity lexicon, a story within a story (a murder to be solved), plus hints as to some of the pivotal events in Rajaniemi's future history and we have a very complex novel. Now, while for me the The Quantum Thief was a joy to read, unwrapping a carefully crafted story presented in a neat if not an intricate package, The Fractal Prince ups the ante and does so in an uncompromising way for the reader who has to come to grips with and incredibly complex beast. Indeed many readers jumping in without having read The Quantum Thief could well quickly find themselves out of their depth and even some of those that have read the first book could, I suspect, well soon find themselves left behind. Here I have to confess that I found The Fractal Prince hard work and so much so that while I knew that I should re-read it straightaway, quite frankly I was worn out and other books on my shelf tempted me.
Let me skate over some of the over-the-top elements that even my SFnal reader suspension of imagination could not cope such as an anti-matter beam blasting through a cabin that did not cause the thermonuclear carnage Einstein would have expected so leaving an occupant alive but focus on the novel's density. That this is manifold in many lexicon, future history, non-linearity of narrative, stories within stories, and the exotic science basis for the SF and not just a couple of the novel's dimensions, one has the sense that the author is relentless with his readers: he will not chart an easy path for his readers but leaves them to find their own way. Now in one sense this is fine as readers often like a challenge, but writers do need to recognise the law of reduced returns: the tougher the challenges the greater the number of those who will fail to rise to them. Hannu in the book's acknowledgements thanks those who gave him advice on the book's early drafts. Here the trap that some writers can fall into is that such advisors will have in effect read the book a number of times and in discussion with the author not only teased out the complexities but can add to them (albeit cleverly): such advisors (well versed in the story and having face-to-face conversations with the author) are not typical readers.
Of course there will be those who enjoy a tough challenge but I do wonder whether with this sequel the author has gone too far? Yes, The Fractal Prince is a very clever work and some of the writing verges on the inspirational. Indeed it may well receive from SF critics some of the high praise that The Quantum Thief attracted. But this minority critic adulation might not translate into bulk sales, or worse this more overly challenging novel might put some potential readers off trying Hannu's forthcoming third book. I hope not because it is clear that the author has talent. Consequently, in this case I wonder whether he has bitten off more than many prospective readers might be able to chew? Certainly Hannu could become a niche author and if he and the publisher are happy with that then by all means go for it. What this all boils down to for you the reader is that you have to ask yourself whether or not you love SF books that provide truly great challenges? If you do then The Fractal Prince will certainly deliver in terms of plot, writing, SFnal imagery, literary allusion etc., and on that you can be very assured.
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