REVIEW: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi

REVIEW SUMMARY: A reading experience that suffered from too many disjoint reading sessions.

MY RATING:

BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A thief agrees to steal a person’s memories in exchange for his freedom.

MY REVIEW:

PROS: Grand-scale ideas; imaginative; interesting extrapolations and plot twists.

CONS: Numerous discontinuous reading sessions killed the story’s pacing, this reader’s understanding, and the overall enjoyment of the story.

BOTTOM LINE: Learn from my mistake – make sure to properly set aside some time for long reading sessions to fully appreciate the brain-bending ideas of this novel.


I’ve long maintained the belief that it’s impossible to objectively review any book, not only because of whatever personal world view and experiences a reader brings to the table, but because of external influences as well. As if to prove my point, life conspired to significantly detract from my reading experience of Hannu Rajaniemi’s much lauded novel, The Quantum Thief, a novel that admittedly includes all the ingredients of a book I would love: big-scale ideas, unique world building and a twisty plot that makes you want to see what happens next.

The Quantum Thief follows master criminal Jean le Flambeur in a post-human world that is barely recognizable from our own. At the novel’s opening, le Flambeur is confined to a Dilemma prison, playing a game for his unseen captors; a game that that involves killing another version of himself. Le Flambeur is rescued by Mieli, a mysterious operative who makes a deal with le Flambeur to pull off a heist in exchange for his freedom. Le Flambeur would be happy enough knowing his true origins, which have apparently been programmed out of him. Mieli’s sentient (and flirty) ship, Perhonen, takes them both to the Oubliette, a moving city of Mars partly reminiscent of the city portrayed in Christopher Priest’s The Inverted World. Meanwhile, in the Oubliette, investigator Isidore Beautrelet is called in to investigate the murder of a chocolatier (a profession you don’t see much of in sf), and finds himself on the trail of an arch-criminal, a man not-coincidentally named le Flambeur.

At one point in The Quantum Thief, the titular character says “You have to understand that this is a little strange.” That’s a politely succinct way of encapsulating the experience of reading the beginning parts of this novel. There are numerous, mind-warping ideas introduced to the reader at such a dizzying pace, it’s nearly impossible to stay afloat without one’s full attention. It isn’t until definitions and situations start coalescing that the reader is able to tread the water of understanding — and that’s when the novel moves from being an occasionally frustrating game of hide and seek to a sometimes brilliantly conceived welcome of glad-you-could-make-it-to-the-party.

(Speaking of games, they play a pivotal underpinning to many of the novel concepts, though to be more accurate, it’s their ultimate extrapolated evolution that is part of the book’s main themes. Not only is the theory of games explored with the plot, but the author makes the novel itself an intriguing puzzle by way of its structure. Things happen that don’t make complete sense until pages, sometimes chapters, later — a convention used repeatedly throughout the novel.)

As might be expected in a posthuman setting, the concept of sharable and programmable memories plays prominently in The Quantum Thief. Here, you can pre-configure memories to be forgotten, ensuring a sort of privacy before the fact of knowing. It’s an important ability in this society where privacy is a highly-regarded concept and people walk around with masked appearances triggered by a simple thought. And that’s just one of many ideas being thrown at the reader at a higher-than-average rate. The book’s prominent use of jargon includes terms like tzaddiks, qupting, gevulot, cryptarchs, Sobornost, zoku, gogols, Smartmatter, and any various incarnations of q-tech (q-dots, q-stone, q-suit, q-spiders, etc.).

Therein lays the beginnings to a problematic reading. The rapid introduction of new ideas isn’t a detriment in and of itself, but rather – and this is where the external influences come in – it was hard to keep up given the unfortunate situation of only being able to read this novel in small chunks at any given time. The book itself is relatively short, yet it took me nearly twice as long as any other book to find the time to read it. Imagine watching a half-hour sitcom five minutes at a time spread across a period of two weeks. The story loses continuity, pacing is off, references can be forgotten, and the overall experience is lessened. And so it was with The Quantum Thief. This is a reader fail, not necessarily a book one. I can easily recognize the imagination and work that went into this story, but I cannot honestly say I enjoyed it. Given all the positive reaction this novel received elsewhere, I would love to give this one another go – but only when I’m able to be more attentive.

39 thoughts on “REVIEW: The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi”

  1. Hi John,

     

    I did find the My Elves are Different comic that references your review here to be funny.

     

    However, I’ve had the same experience in the past, of reading a book that, at the time, was just not the  right book, and my experience suffered.

     

    Also, coincidentally, I just started reading an ARC of the Quantum Thief, myself. 

     

     

  2. This is why I really dislike ratings in general. I’ve had similar experieces myself, and often, I need to be in the right frame of mind to understand and fully comprehend the book. I might like it, but there might be problems with getting into it that don’t help. 

  3. Mr DeNardo

    If the failure to enjoy The Quantum Thief is yours, why punish Hannu Rajaniemi with a 2 of 5 review? 

    I understand that The Quantum Thief is the Finn’s debut novel.  Why slam him for your error?

    If you do not withdraw this irresponsible review, I shall never read another of your reviews. 

    Good day

    h lynn keith

  4. @Paul: Good luck with the reading! 

    @Andrew:  Yeah, sometimes people do tend to focus on the star rating, and not the explanation behind it, nor the reviewer’s reason for recording those impressions which, as I noted at MEAD, are explained (via the “MY RATING” link above) under “What, exactly, are you reviewing?” 

    @Antares: I’ll refer you to the above link.

  5. Maybe I’ll look at it when it finally comes May 10th, even thought it’s been out in England for like a year.

     

  6. In the end this is a matter of personal opinion.  I completely respect John’s views on the novel.  Many of the things hold true, and this book is tough to read in chunks.  Ideally, it should be read in a sitting.  I love the frenetic pace of new ideas.  SF authors always slow down their stories with long, unneeded descriptions of new tech.  Hannu takes next to no time for exposition, serving to try and make the reader figure it out through context.  

    I do agree that your written thoughts on the book seem a bit out of sorts for the typical two star review, but that’s why one needs to read the explanation.  The fact that you made it known about your state of mind when you were reading is something I respect very much, as it puts your words in context.  

     

  7. I bought a copy off Amazon from the UK and haven’t made it more than 20 or 30 pages into it. I think I more just curious about the fuss than the actual plot or what is going on, since it has now been sitting on my shelf untouched for at least a month. Perhaps I knew to put it off until I have a chunk of time to just deal with it? That’s what I’m telling myself I’m doing with “Palimpsest” at least.

  8. “There are anthropological limits—human proportions—that should not be breached, such as the limits of memory. When you have finished reading, you should still be able to remember the beginning. If not, the novel loses its shape, its “architectonic clarity” becomes murky.” – Milan Kundera, Paris Review interview

    While I appreciate you acknowledging external influences that impinge on your reading, I feel that you are using them merely as a scapegoat for the fact that you didn’t like a novel that has been “critically lauded.”

    All too often, when talking about comic books or tv shows, people will say that they work much better in large chunks, for example, the trade paperback or the dvd box set. If something holds up in a trade paperback that didn’t in single issues, then it was a failure of form, specifically the serialized format.

    Perhaps The Quantum Thief is a failure of the novel form. I don’t know, I haven’t read it. But I think that rather than blaming yourself, you should investigate further why the novel’s structure didn’t withstand prolonged reading.

    The problem with blaming the reader’s critical faculties for their lack of enjoyment is that it essentially makes every work of art critic-proof. It’s not that the book’s bad, you just weren’t in the right frame of mind, you didn’t know enough about the context, you needed to read it when you were 13, etc. Certainly, a reader’s approach heavily informs their engagement with any work. For example, my love of Nicolas Cage movies exponentially increases the more drunk I get. But there’s a limit. Rather than just saying that this book is great, you just didn’t “get” it, I think it’s far more productive to analyze the breakdown. What is it about you and what is it about the book that didn’t quite connect?

  9. @a.m. I see your point about the trap of making a work critic-proof, though I don’t think that’s the case here.  I do recognize the merits of this novel, but a good novel does not necessarily make for a good reading experience.  The opposite trap is blaming  a novel for something over which it has no control.

    Regarding my impression: I think Sesawunda said it more succinctly than I did: the author “takes next to no time for exposition”.  The text was thus a relentless guessing game that kept me from getting entirely engaged, which I further analyzed as being a side effect of disjoint reading sessions.

  10. I remember trying to read Neal Stephenson’s THE CONFUSION whilst bedridden and suffering from a horrendous case of the flu. I hated it, but I took on board the fact that the circumstances were not ideal, that I’d loved CRYPTONOMICON and enjoyed QUICKSILVER, and I probably should reread it in a more normal frame of mind before reviewing it.

    That was four years ago, and I haven’t gotten round to it since.

    So I sympathise with the decision to go with the review despite the surrounding circumstances. Maybe re-reviewing the book when you have an opportunity to read it in a better situation (the ARC was pretty short, I read it in two sessions in just a few hours) and contrasting your viewpoints could be an idea?

  11. Hi John,

    I read it it six nights running from midnight to 1:00 PM, enjoyed it immensely and had no trouble with it. In my top 10 of 2010 and might move it forward if the next volume matches or surpasses the first.

  12. I’m going to go with My Elves Are Different in this case: If you already knew you weren’t in the right frame of mind to read the book when you set down to review the book that you read, the best idea in this case wouldn’t be to “just give it a 2 star review and then excuse your review by saying ‘I wasn’t quite ready to read this when I did’, but instead to NOT REVIEW THE BOOK until you’re sure that you’ve read it while in the correct frame of mind, and then decide whether you really actually liked the book or not.

    To review it while knowing that you weren’t giving it the full attention it deserves when you set out for a read, is very disrespectful to both the author and the work itself.

     

    I respecfully request that you withdraw your star rating until you’ve given it another chance, and a read while in the “correct frame of mind”.

  13. @Matsu: It’s not that I wasn’t in the right “frame of mind”, it’s that most times I sat down to read the book, something else interrupted me. The end result was that I read the book in multiple, smaller chunks over the span of two weeks.  This book is not one that lends itself to such a reading.

    Not reviewing the book seems like the wrong thing to do because I did recognize the books merits and wanted to share them.  At the same time, I realized that my reading experience was lessened because of reading it in chunks, so I openly stated as much, even in the at-a-glance summary that “drive-by readers” (as MEAD calls them) don’t read past.

    The reaction that I should remove the review interests me from a social aspect in that, from a high level, what happened here was this: I read a book, it wasn’t a great experience, I explain why.  Is this the first time this has happened on the Internet or something?  Was I supposed to “forget” my bad experience and not share the merits of the book?  Or are people focusing on the star rating and the “Review” in the headline and not reading further?  I’m not being flippant here, I’m genuinely curious.  Would the reaction be the same if the post headline said “Thoughts on The Quantum Thief” instead of “Review” and it began at the line “I’ve long maintained the belief that it’s impossible to objectively review any book…”? 

    MEAD admits it’s the star rating that put him off.  But he even goes so far as to say that “If it were clearly a personal blog it wouldn’t matter, but as a major genre website it’s unfair.”  SF Signal *is* a personal blog, there are just multiple persons, and I’m not altogether sure how the idea of sharing an honest opinion of my reading experience changes with the venue it appears in. 

    Also: at least I think we can all agree with Fred.  There should have been bagels. :)

  14. Wow…

    Cant believe people are giving so much grief for a “bad” review…

    I would rather see a reviewer give honest reviews, even if they are “bad” than one that only gives “good” ones…A reviewer that only gives good reviews is beyond useless to me.

    Attacking the reviewer if he/she is being dishonest with a book is one thing, but simply because he/she didnt enjoy the book? Beyond ridiculous.

    Plus, does anybody really go by a single review when deciding to read a book? Industry wide buzz maybe, but one guy on some website?

    TW

    PS – Screw bagels, where are the Krispy Kremes?

  15. Yes, it would have been much better if he had adopted the correct frame of mind for his book before starting to read. We can’t have people reading books without proper preparation. This is work, not fun.

  16. I get a few ARCS now and then from various sources.  Not many, but it happens. I’m a small fish in the reviewing pond, but an enthusiastic one.

    I feel a personal obligation to read those books before any other books for pleasure, because its a privilege to get an ARC of a book–I’m getting to see behind the curtain, for good or ill.  The problem can come if I have an ARC that I feel I need to read, and I am just not “feeling it”. If I had an ARC for an urban fantasy, say, and my brain really wants space opera.  It can and does affect my experience with reading the book.

    You can get all philosophical and ask what is a book, anyway.  Books are not dead information on a page–everyone who reads a book, a page or even a paragraph takes away different things, and collaboratively builds a composition of the book’s text and the reader’s interpretation that is unique.

    “I supply the text; you supply the meaning”

    Outside circumstances, as I have said before, and what seems to have happened to John, influence that composition. John’s rating of that composition, because it was mostly negative, was low. 

    And this is why I don’t use review stars on my blog, and use them with reluctance when I put the reviews elsewhere that require them.

    I think that this bad review is getting a lot of grief because of the push for the book and the author. If John was reviewing “Dragon’s Pawn by Paul Weimer”, there would be a lot less hue and cry about it.

  17. See, this is why I wouldn’t want to get any ARCs or review copies, this feeling of obligation would take all the fun out of reading and reviewing.

  18. “See, this is why I wouldn’t want to get any ARCs or review copies, this feeling of obligation would take all the fun out of reading and reviewing.”

     

    There shouldn’t be, and as far as I know, there’s no expectation that an ARC copy automatically equals a positive review of any book. The idea that this has to be work and not fun is ridiculous. Coming from reviewing books on various sites (including this one), there’s been a number of novels that I’ve gone through and not reviewed well because, well, I didn’t like it, for any number of reasons. I may not have liked the characters, storyline, or pacing. If I read the book again on a different day, and a different mindset, I might come back with another answer: maybe I’ll be in a better mood or have a better idea of what’s going on. The reviewer doesn’t owe the author or reader anything other than their honest assessment of the book: John clearly didn’t like what he read, and didn’t find what he read conducive to reading in shorter bites.

     

    At the end of the day, a review copy doesn’t make a book a good one. I try and pick the books that appeal to me personally, because if there’s a random book out there that I don’t find interesting, I’m not going to give it a good review – end of story. It’s a slightly different story when writing paid copy for a larger review publication, where you might not have the choice, but again, if I don’t like a book, I’ll say so, and back it up with some type of reasoning that explains why I don’t like it. Regardless of the circumstances, I’ve enjoyed reading books for reviewing them: I’ve come across a lot of books that I’ve enjoyed, some that I haven’t, but it’s an exercise that I think has made me a better reader.

  19. There shouldn’t be, and as far as I know, there’s no expectation that an ARC copy automatically equals a positive review of any book. 

    True, Andrew.  

    What I meant was, there is an expectation, at least in my own mind, that reading ARCs take priority over other books in terms of the order I read things. It doesn’t (and you are right, Andrew, shouldn’t)  prevent me from giving my point of view, even if it is not glowing and positive.

    FREX, although he was cool about it when I told him, I did give a middling review of an ARC of Peter Orullan’s The Unremembered.

  20. Yep – I don’t get ARC copies for my own blog (well, rarely, unless I go out looking for one), but if I get one with the intention to review for another site (or if my blog was set up to review books), that’s what I’d read, to get it through to the review quickly for the publisher and author – I see that as a sort of obligation, as the books are designed to generate buzz and advance talk for people to eventually buy them. 

  21. I’m reading it now for a review, though I read it last year.  The novel’s background and plotting unfolds at such a high bit-rate that blocking out time to pay attention to everything is vital.  It’s a little like Greg Egan on Aderall, which is either a good thing or a bad thing depending on your point of view.  I really dug it initially, and a second reading is proving rewarding, but it’s audience is likely limited.  If you like Charles Stross’s Accelerando and Glasshouse, I can see you enjoying this.  Otherwise, it may be too much of a muchness.

    Derek

  22. This is such a weird review. While I appreciate your honesty, you pretty much disqualify yourself as someone to look to for an opinion on this book. I just can’t believe you wouldn’t in this case re-read the book properly before reviewing it. I think you owe that to the writer. If you submitted this to any professional review publication, they’d fire you. So weird.

    JeffV

  23. Interesting – a lot of the value of criticism comes down to the competency of the critic, and whether or not a critic appraises a book in public should be determined by the critic’s appreciation of his/her own competency. ie knowing if you yourself have the chops to deal with certain books. Whether or not you can actually do justice to both the book and its writer, and ultimately to any potential readers.

    If we are engaged in an analysis more substantial than a capsule-type consumer guide, we inevitably bring our own perspectives and idiosyncracies to the job. This can lead us down odd byways, sometimes to summations that may not appear satisfying. John, you’ve certainly achieved the first of the critic’s goals, by making us think. Question is, has it and all this made you think further on about the QT book itself?

  24. @Adam: (A little late with this reply!) I would love to re-read this, and plan to do so at some later date.  As I’ve mentioned before, I initially had a bad reading experience with The Time Machine by H.G. Wells then later went back and loved it.  The reading material hadn’t changed, of course, but the experience was drastically improved.  This is the basis for my realization that I’m really reviewing my reading experience with the book more than the book itself.

    @Jeff: I respectfully disagree. (Not about the firing part – that would totally happen.  Fortunately this wasn’t submitted to a professional review publication.) The point of me posting reviews is to share reading experiences, good and bad, which is what I’ve done.  You say: “you pretty much disqualify yourself as someone to look to for an opinion on this book.” Now we are in agreement.

  25. I can’t believe that people are mustering any defense of this approach. The problem isn’t that negative opinions are expressed here, it’s that you’ve written something that purports to be a book review, John, when in fact you’ve written an evaluation of your own mood and mindset at the time you happened to be reading a book. It’s possible to write an interesting article on that topic, but since you keep pretending that your piece has something significant to do with Rajaniemi’s novel, it doesn’t work in that way either.

    It’s nice that you’ve intermittently acknowledged above that “reader fail” is to blame more than the author for the trouble you had with the book, but if you keep using a quantitative star system to evaluate the quality of a work (or a reading experience, as you might insist) and keep calling these things reviews, you’re doing yourself and your readers a disservice.

    Just so we’re clear, I’d be saying the same thing if you handed out five stars and raved about a book, assuming you did it because a pretty girl smiled at you while you read it.

  26. John,

    In all sincerity, I think you should withdraw this piece. To put it very simply, you can’t both assert that your own reading was a “fail” and assign the book a grade (in stars). Any more than a teacher could tell a student, “I didn’t do my job this week, so your paper gets a D.

    For what it’s worth, I was a theater critic for years. I think acknowledging one’s biases and limits is fantastic. But if they reach the point where you must declare (as you do, repeatedly) your own insufficiency to render a judgment–how can you then render a judgment?

    Robert VS Redick

  27. I’m not quite sure how to respond to a question about how I can rightfully judge my own personal reading experience.  I read the book and I had a mediocre time doing it.  I’m not grading papers, I’m not reviewing for a professional outlet…I’m posting my impressions on my blog, which I have been doing for years.  

  28. John, I wouldn’t know how to do that either. But that’s not the question I’m posing. Let me split it into two parts:

    1. Don’t you declare above, rather explicitly, that you currently consider yourself unfit to judge the book, because of external events in your life?

    2. Do you not then, prominently at the top of your page, hand down a judgment of that book (in the form a star rating)?

    —————–

    This is as far as my curiosity goes. I haven’t read TQT, nor do I know Mr Rajaniemi or anything about him, although we happen to have the same publisher and agent. Nor do I know you or have any axe to grind. I wish you well from afar (though unqualified to do so… :)  )

  29. For the untold thousands following this breathless exchange, said link takes you to a page whose first sentence is:

    “Since I’ve been reviewing books for some time, I think it’s long overdue that I let people know (1) exactly what criteria are used to get a book’s rating, and (2) what are my likes and dislikes that will affect my enjoyment of a book.”

    You go on to define a two-star rating as “A mediocre book; not missing anything by passing it up.”

    ——–

    On the other hand, what the hell am I doing with my Monday afternoon? Reading these comments is like watching people try to pin a soap bubble to a pegboard.

  30. Yeah, MEAD brought up the same thing, to which I replied (over there): “When I wrote the definitions for the star ratings, I was concentrating on the book impression part of the reading experience, not the reading experience itself. So yes, that’s an incomplete definition. Think of 2 stars as a mediocre reading experience.”  And then I promptly forgot to update the page.  It’s updated now.

     

    Now, where’d that soap bubble go…? :)

  31. You had a negative reading experience. Just because lots of people elsewhere have raved about the novel is no reason to find excuses for it. People do not appreciate the honesty. The humility merely allowed attacks on you for daring to review it in the first place. The real issue in the complaints, of course, is, it’s a negative review. Unfortunately, the real issue exposed by the complaints, is, the assumption that the reader has to measure up to the writer. If you were distracted from giving the book it’s required attention, you had better not have the gall to nevertheless have an opinion about how much you enjoyed it? If you really believe such nonsense, how dare you post reviews in the first place?

     

  32. Woah, this book kicks ass, at least the first thirty pages.  Lame cover though.  I guess I’m sick of books that make you slug through 300 pages to get to the good stuff (*cough* Red Mars).  It’s on audio too, but that might be tricky to listen to without pausing.

     

  33. i loved this book. Every bad review i’ve seen including this one is based on the reviewer not being bothered to read the book properly. That’s not a review it’s an admission of mental laziness. First time through i understood about a tenth of the story but the poetic writing and epic imagination kept me coming back. Fifth time through i understood that every word has a purpose which it is up to the reader to uncover. Not a single sentence is wasted. I must have read it ten times by now and each time i find a new layer of complexity. If you didn’t enjoy this first time read it again…and again. I promise it’s worth it. Watch it unfold and blossom in your mind

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