Book review: The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken

A fast-paced heist on a galactic scale, a universe full of wildly imaginative human variants, and a narrative with a tight internal logic all combine to form a very entertaining book, which almost reaches my imaginary rank of a modern classic. Almost. There are a few elements that hint that this is the author’s debut novel, but they are completely understandable. I still recommend this wild ride to anyone, but in particular (and perhaps surprisingly) to fans of the quintessential heist-in-space novel, William Gibson’s Neuromancer.

Belisarius Arjona is a genetically engineered Homo quantus, essentially a quantum computer in human form. His kind are living in an institute where they spend their time working on physical and mathematical theorems. Bel is a failed specimen. He cannot reach the full potential of his species, and he feels that he was forced into his role by others. So, he leaves the institute and makes living as a scam artist across the universe.

After a scam, strongly reminiscent of the last scene of The Sting, Bel is approached by a military commander of a fleet of ships, who wants to hire him for the most daring heist of all. She represents a fleet of twelve super-advanced ships, which need to be transported via a network of wormholes, without being stopped by the wormhole operators or the empire that controls access to the planet the warships belong to. The access to the wormhole network is so heavily defended that even these ships, with their most advanced weapons, stand no chance in a frontal assault.

Despite some misgivings, Bel agrees and goes on to assemble a crew that would help him pull off this trick. He finds a much more capable quantum woman, an insane A.I., a just as insane (if not more) bomb maker, a foul-mouthed fish-man that barely resembles a humanoid anymore, a dwarf and a couple of humans, and sets to deceive a few empires, and ultimately even his employers. In the explosive third act, they manage to achieve everything they set out to do, but at a cost.

There are quite a few heist stories set in the science fiction genre, but The Quantum Magician reminds me most of Neuromancer by William Gibson. The structure is roughly the same: plan a heist, assemble the crew, infiltrate the enemy (that’s when the plan goes sideways and some members of the crew betray you, not knowing that they are playing into your hands), and then unleash the actual action. That’s when the reader also realizes that not everything needs to be subterfuge, but the application of raw force against a distracted opponent works just as well. This narrative structure may be a little overused, but it works well in this niche, and the author takes full advantage of it.

Where the book really shines, though, is the worldbuilding. Künsken created a universe of highly believable races and political entities. We have the regular humans, assembled in several empires, each of which plays to a certain strength. The Congregate have the military power, the Anglo-Spanish have the finances, and so on. Then there are the elaborately developed new races. The dwarfish Puppets are descendants of a genetically engineered species, which would fall into a religious fervor whenever they caught a whiff of their creators’ pheromones. In a sense, their creators, who called themselves Numen (new men), engineered and entire race of slaves who took pleasure to do their bidding. As is often the case with hubris, this led to an outcome that was unexpected for the original Numen, but plain to see in hindsight. The author gained my full respect for just this single element in the story. Few people can create a future history with such a concise internal logic. Then, of course, there is Belisarius and his ilk. Their condition is close to autism, which they can switch on and off at command, but far more nuanced. Finally, we have Stills, a Homo Eridanus, who is effectively a fish with a human brain capable of withstanding incredible water pressures. His species is best described through their own philosophical semi-holy book.

Each of the characters has a very distinct, very strong voice, to the extent that the actual humans are rather muted. The main protagonist is actually the most afflicted member of the group. Belisarius is already at a disadvantage because he is a high-functioning autist. He doesn’t reveal anything abut himself (we get that exposition from other characters), and he doesn’t speak his mind. He also doesn’t explain himself, which is good for the suspense in the story, but bad for his own exposure. As a result, he doesn’t really carry the story, and serves more as the facilitator. This hurts the book at the very end, where the reader is asked to care about Bel, as he is in mortal danger, and I couldn’t feel anything towards him.

Instead, there are characters with much stronger voices, who essentially co-opt the narrative. This is the case with the foul-mouthed Stills and the certifiably insane bomb maker Marie. Their interactions are loud and entertaining, but also largely unnecessary. Their ostensible task of planting bombs at certain weak points of the Puppet capital city fizzles out, and they are only good for securing the payment for the group. I like to believe that the author used them to pull a heist on the reader: to draw our attention towards this duo and their hijinks, so that the readers don’t realize that the real preparation was more quiet and somewhere completely different. In addition, they served to mix up the pace of the book a little: from the introspective Belisarius and his crew, as well as from the absolutely fascinating Puppet-Numan history and interaction. In this, the author masterfully varied the pace along the chapters and kept me entertained throughout the book.

Unfortunately, Künsken didn’t seem to resist throwing out ideas that weren’t properly tied up. Saint Matthew, the crazy A.I., is fascinating but even more underutilized than Bel. He seems to serve as a consciousness for Belisarius, and even tries to explain his mentality, but this entire subplot goes nowhere. Another such dead end concerned the Scarecrow, a human-machine hybrid agent of the Congregate, who was shaping to be Bel’s primary antagonist. They never meet, however, and the Scarecrow serves barely as a witness to the heist.

My only other misgiving with the book was the third act. I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of brute force involved. The book lulls you into thinking that everything would be quiet and nicely packaged, whether the heist succeeds or not, when instead the sleight-of-hand involves moving the physical defenses elsewhere and allowing the ships to punch through. Once the ships start shooting, I believe the author failed at switching from a slow-burning drama to high action. The battle descriptions did absolutely nothing for me. I don’t need the kind of detailed battle plan that Jack Campbell is known for, but in The Quantum Magician I could not picture the action at all. It didn’t help that most of it was from the point of view of Stills, who would be an imperfect narrator even when he didn’t have most sensors blown out.

The Quantum Magician would be the perfect book if it tied the loose ends with two side characters or omitted them entirely. I understand that there is a sequel, and I’ll be happy to read it; I just don’t feel excited about being obliged to do so. This book could have been a great one-shot, and thus an instant classic for me. Instead, it is “just” a very entertaining high-energy novel with very captivating worldbuilding and some great characters. Compelled or not, I truly look forward to the sequel.

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