The Fractal Prince by Finnish-born author Hannu Rajaniemi (who according to his author biography now lives in Scotland and has a Ph.D. in string theor...moreThe Fractal Prince by Finnish-born author Hannu Rajaniemi (who according to his author biography now lives in Scotland and has a Ph.D. in string theory, whatever that is (I can’t help but imagine a guy in an academic gown and wearing a mortarboard playing Cat’s Cradle, but I suppose that this is probably slightly off the mark)) is the second part of a trilogy; the first part, The Quantum Thief, received a huge amount of attention (almost all of it positive, most critics were positively ecstatic about the novel) when it was published, while the release of the second one for some reason seems to have barely gotten noticed. I really have not the faintest clue why the novel appears to have ended up below anybody’s radar, and it is even more of a mystery to as I think the second volume is even better than the first (and I already liked that one considerably).
The trilogy (for which there does not seem to be an official name - I’ve seen it called either “Quantum Thief” or “Jean le Flambeur” trilogy) constitutes one of the few really successful attempts I have come across to imagine a post-singularity society on a sustained level, i.e. to imagine a world where humans have for the most part uploaded themselves into digital networks and the real and virtual become so closely interlinked that to distinguish between them is practically meaningless. In this world it is also possible for humans (if you even want to still call them that) to make duplicates of themselves at will and to manifest in any body they chose much like these days you select an avatar for a computer game (and one of the big players in this universe actually did evolve from a World of Warcraft clan). From that, you probably get an idea that the society Rajaniemi describes is on the farthest end of the weirdness scale and that it’s generally pretty far out there – although I can promise you that you won’t really be able to appreciate just how far out until you’ve started the novels. Apparently (I have to take the word of reviewers of The Quantum Thief for that as I’m quite clueless in that field) it is all based on cutting edge science, but that part went so far over my head as to make the actual plot of the novels for large parts almost incomprehensible. But actually, that’s not a bug but a feature, in so far as Rajaniemi gleefully follows Arthur C. Clarke’s maxim that every science sufficiently developed is going to look like magic, and bends his Science Fiction story into a kind of twisted fairy tale.
And this can be taken literally for The Fractal Prince - that novel’s first reference to Scheherazade and the Arabian Nights occurs already in the prologue and then just keeps piling them on from there, creating a pseudo-Oriental ambience, a Nevernever-Arabia that revels in the manifold colours of its own, self-conscious artificiality, populated with jinni and other strange creatures and filled with the magic of weaving stories. And this is where I think the novel really begins to shine, because it turns out that Rajaniemi is one of the very few Science Fiction authors who care about literary form. Each event or character in each story in Tales of Arabian Nights is a potential source of another story, every moment someone might break out in a new story, and of course that story also might contain a multitude of stories – indeed an infinitude of stories, as of course this process can go on ad libitum, stories within stories within stories, with the reader being drawn deeper and deeper into the potentially infinite pattern. In other words, the Arabian Nights practice a kind of fractal storytelling – or at least that is what Rajaniemi strongly implies here, and it is the narrative structure which his own novel carries over from Scheherazade and her treasury of tales even more than references to characters and events.
Together with the bleeding edge science (which will probably remain incomprehensible to anyone who does not have a Ph.D. in theoretical physics) this makes for some truly mind-boggling (and occasionally headache-inducing) reading, but then making its readers’ heads spin is not necessarily a bad thing to do for a novel. In The Fractal Prince, in any case, it is always fascinating and still was surprisingly (considering that most of the time I had no bloody clue what the hell was going on) fun to read.(less)
The author of this novel used to publish as Sarah Monette, and under that name wrote one of my all-time favourite Fantasy series, The Doctrine of Laby...moreThe author of this novel used to publish as Sarah Monette, and under that name wrote one of my all-time favourite Fantasy series, The Doctrine of Labyrinths. So I came to The Goblin Emperor with very high expectations and some trepidations as to whether the book would live up to the author’s previous ones.
The Goblin Emperor shares with her earlier work that it has a strange but believable setting – this time it is elves and steam power. Not your common garden or even forest variety of elves, though, that dance and frolic in the forest or under some hill. Instead, most of the novel takes place in a sprawling city-palace which reminded me of the Forbidden City, as indeed the elves in this novel appear to owe a lot more to Imperial China than to Tolkien or Irish folklore. And time does not stand still in this world, things are happening and among them is technical progress. The elf of the world travels not on horseback but in dirigbles, and the novel’s events are set in motion when one of them crashes, killing the entire Imperial family that was on board. Well, not the entirely family, as it turns out…
Quite different from her earlier work however is this novel’s protagonist, an elf-goblin halfling and fourth son of the current elf emperor – who suddenly finds himself elevated to be emperor himself when the rest of his family dies in the above mentioned dirigible accident. The unusual thing about Maia is that he is a thoroughly nice guy – it’s a rarity these days (and this holds tru not just for Fantasy novels) to find a main character that is actually fundamenally good and well-meaning, and it’s also risky because such a character can very easily become very boring. Katherine Addison avoids that by having him grow up very isolated and somewhat traumatised – as a result he is very clueless and insecure when he arrives at the Elven court and very often has to struggle to make his good intentions work (and quite often fails at it).
And this is what the book is about, Maia’s attempts to come to terms with the new role that has been imposed upon him, and slowly growing into it. There are no fight scenes in this novel, no battles, barely any violence at all. There is no world to be saved, no evil overlord to be vanquished or evil empire to be crushed. There is a bit of mystery (it turns out the dirigible accident that made Maia emperor was not an accident after all), but mostly it is lots and lots of court intrigue and even more character study of a young man who is in way over his head but trying very hard to do what is right.
That could have turned into a very boring book; that it is an utterly intriguing, compelling read is due to mainly two factors. For one thing, as Katherine Addison has proven with her Doctrine of Labyrinths, she is a very deft hand at creating convincing characters, and The Goblin Emperor proves once again that the only other Fantasy author equal in that regard is Robin Hobb. Seriously, a reader who does not feel for and with Maia, his trials and tribulations, his earnest attempts at being a good emperor, a reader who does not at least get moist eyes every time he shows his deep love for his deceased mother – simply has no heart at all. The other thing is Katherine Addison‘s writing which has gotten even better compared to her previous novels – the language appears very unassuming at first, but if you look closer you begin to notice how highly polished it is, how images, rythm, cadence form a perfect whole that draws readers gently in and carries them along. Thanks to this, Katherine Addison manages to take many of the most tired High Fantasy tropes, turn and twist them into something new and fresh and utterly unrecognizable and use them to build a Fantasy novel that is unlikely any other that I have ever read but still stays true to the spirit of the thing, the belief that there is an essential goodness in man and that no matter how dark things look that there always is a silver lining. And this without even getting close to appearing trite but by gifting her readers with many hours of unmitigated, squee-inducing reading delight. This is undoubtedly one of the best Fantasy novel of the year, if not decade, and everyone with even the faintest interest in the genre really owes it to themselves to get the novel and share in its joy.(less)