Don’t be fooled by the title – Derek Kunsken‘s The Quantum Magician (review copy from Solaris) isn’t a rip off of Hannu Rajaniemi’s bonkers space opera The Quantum Thief. It may feature a similarly charming con-man protagonist, but instead is a delightfully engaging heist story. This is Ocean’s 11 in space.
Belisarius (Bel) Arjona is the titular Quantum Magician – genetically engineered to be able to enter various altered mental states in order to examine the fabric of the universe. One of those states involves complete suppression of identity, in order to avoid the phenomenon of the observer collapsing quantum states. But something has gone wrong in Bel’s breeding – entering these states is likely to lead to his death, and he spends his life as a con-man because the challenge is the only thing that will distract him from the addictive pull of his training. Living in a complex, multi-cultural society dealing with the mix of messy emotions and complexity that make up most sentient beings is a much greater intellectual challenge than studying physics in a laboratory.
Bel is approached with the job of a lifetime – smuggle some military spaceships through a wormhole. The wormhole is the main route from one part of the galaxy to another, and access is tightly controlled. These military ships belong to a colony civilisation desperate to make a strike for independence. Moving the warships will put them in the right place to make a surprise military strike. Bel’s fee for this work is two small ships equipped with a brand new drive technology that will be worth a fortune. But the real prize for him is the chance to observe wormhole physics from the inside – data he would never have been able to gather if he’d stayed on his home planet.
What lifts The Quantum Magician above the usual run of heist stories is the characterisation and world-building. Whether he is willing to acknowledge it or not, Bel is using this job as a chance to reconnect with old friends and colleagues – including his old lover Cassandra; Saint Matthew, the most advanced AI ever created; an explosives expert; Bel’s former con-man mentor; and a genetically engineered sea creature who is an expert pilot able to operate a high pressure and high g. Bel has personal debts to pay to some of these people, and wants to work with people he trusts, but this for him is mostly about the chance to connect with people he knows as part of a team in order to address his fundamental loneliness. Much of the early part of the book is Bel pulling his team together and planning the elaborate heist. The actual heist itself delivers on tension and unexpected developments, bringing an exciting climax to the story.
Goodreads rating: 4*