I read Hannu Rajaneimi’s debut novel, The Quantum Thief, back in March… and I loved it. A hard sci-fi tale that manages to be at once intimidatingly intelligent and raucously enjoyable, it is now one of my favourite genre reads. So it goes without saying that I was eagerly anticipating the sequel, The Fractal Prince. Luckily for me, Gollancz were kind enough to send me a review copy when the book came out last month. (Thank you, Gollancz!) The slight delay in my review is due to the fact that I re-read The Quantum Thief before plunging into the next instalment. This is something I would recommend doing, because whilst The Fractal Prince does offer some summary of The Quantum Thief’s events, it will prove a rather confusing ride if the first book isn’t fresh in your mind. (Then again, everyone’s different; perhaps your memory is better than mine!)
The Fractal Prince continues the adventures of Jean Le Fambeur and his captor-come-companion Mieli – and of course Perhonen, Mieli’s sassy ship. Following their escapades on Mars, they are heading towards Earth for the next stage of their mission. However, on their way an encounter with a sobornost Founder gogol throws up fresh questions and creates new priorities for Jean. Meanwhile, on Earth we are introduced to a new protagonist: Tawaddud Gomelez, daughter to an aristocratic family who live in the last remaining city on Earth. Located in what was once the Middle East, Sirr is a bewildering and bustling metropolis populated by embodied people, tiny ‘fast ones, and disembodied ‘jinni’. Treasure-hunters venture into the desert to salvage ancient technology, while feral ‘wildcode’ runs rampant, causing horrific mutations and worse. But it’s not until Tawaddud gets caught up in the city’s political manoeuvrings that she discovers just how much chaos is stirring in Sirr.
This book was definitely a worthy follow-up to Rajaniemi’s 2011 debut. Once again, the author’s astounding imagination burst from the pages, presenting readers with a richly imagined and fiendishly clever vision of the future. The perspective was also expanded from that of The Quantum Thief (as you would expect from a sequel), with new settings and many more details revealed about the sobornost, the zoku, and the various posthuman peoples who populate this far-future solar system. The protagonists, too, show many new facets, with Rajaneimi disclosing more about their histories and motivations as the narrative progresses.
For me, one of the highlights of The Quantum Thief was the ‘Oubliette’ city on Mars and its accompanying system of privacy ‘gevulot’, and again in The Fractal Prince the setting was particularly impressive. I loved the author’s conception of Earth’s last city, its wildcode-ravaged fringes, and its eclectic populace. Rajaneimi avoids long descriptive paragraphs, but has a knack for conveying the richly textured feel of his setting and its hectic atmosphere with clarity and flair. This also applies to the science fictional concepts, which – as in The Quantum Thief – are complex and never fully explained. Nevertheless, Rajaniemi has a neat trick to make sure they remain (at least somewhat) comprehensible to his readers, i.e. by referring to them using fantastical terminology – for example, clouds of nanoparticles are ‘utility fog’, and when used for transport they are (magic) ‘carpets’. This use of fantastical nomenclature helps readers to visualise these futuristic elements even if the science on which they’re based is beyond them (as it often was me!).
The characters likewise continued to be a delight. As I said in my Quantum Thief review, I’m often worried that in hard SF characterisation might take a backseat to ideas and plot, but that’s definitely not the case with Rajaniemi’s writing. Jean and Mieli’s relationship remained interesting, oscillating as it does between solidarity and suspicion, and even Perhonen showed an unexpected side. I was sad to have left Isidore on Mars in The Quantum Thief, but new character Tawadudd made up for that. Serving as the reader’s sole native viewpoint of Earth, her character was perfect for revealing the different sides of Sirr and the factions operating there. Caught between her desire to impress her aristocratic father and her fascination with the strange jinni of the desert, Tawaddud serves as a bridge between the ‘high’ and ‘low’ of the city. She’s also a good example of that elusive being, the ‘Strong Female Character’: independent, determined, and intelligent. So thumbs up for her!
Rajaniemi also has a real talent for including amusing character scenes and interactions – even when the narrative’s moving along at a swift clip (which is most of the time) – and these instances of light-heartedness made the book that much more of a joy to read.
And now to the part that I both admired and had reservations about: the plot structure. First off, it can’t be denied that the structure of The Fractal Prince is handled very cleverly. ‘Fractal’ by name and nature, the novel uses the device of (un)folding stories within stories – purposefully riffing off One Thousand and One Nights, the Arabian setting of which is echoed in Sirr. Later chapters turn back upon themselves, referring unexpectedly to earlier episodes, whilst characters are constantly telling stories to each other. Indeed, in Sirr stories act as a kind of currency for the jinni who live in the desert, and are seen as both dangerous and valuable.
While I was struck with the ambitiousness of this structure, and admired the way in which it gradually disclosed different elements of the characters, it also had me confused, and I often needed to revisit earlier chapters to regain my grasp of what was going on or to check which timeline I was on. I’m also sure that quite a few things went over my head, and although I’m all for re-reading books to spot things missed the first time around, I did wish that The Fractal Prince had given me a few more pointers along the way. So whereas I praised The Quantum Thief for immersing readers in its world without letting us drown in it, this time I felt I got rather a lot of water in my lungs (please excuse the clumsy metaphor!). I enjoyed the book regardless, but less patient readers might come away frustrated.
To some extent, my occasional bewilderment is partly because of Rajaniemi’s economic writing style. I’m aware I’m contradicting myself a bit here, but whereas earlier I praised the economy of description when it came to the setting, this same trait was detrimental to some of the book’s action sequences. There were places in The Fractal Prince where more description would have helped me to follow and visualise the action. I also felt – particularly in the climactic sequences towards the end – that Rajaniemi sold himself a bit short. The Fractal Prince has some truly cracking epic set-pieces, and I felt that the author could have dwelt on them for longer to milk the full impact of such important, large-scale scenes. In this respect, I agree with Adam Roberts in his Guardian review where he says that The Fractal Prince falls short of evoking ‘the sublime’ – though I’m sure that Rajaniemi is more than capable of achieving this, and I look forward to seeing what he comes up with in the final instalment of his trilogy.
Overall, then, despite some reservations I found The Fractal Prince extremely enjoyable, and can safely say that Hannu Rajaneimi is producing some of the most exciting, lively, and ambitious SF I have ever read. So, whilst The Fractal Prince is more difficult to follow than The Quantum Thief (and shouldn’t be attempted without having read the first one), I highly, highly recommend that you experience both of these novels. You’ll need to keep your wits about you, but it’s definitely worth it.