Rating: 8.8 (out of 10)
The multifarious, space-faring human civilization Derek Künsken envisions for his debut novel The Quantum Magician relies on a network of wormholes to move from system to system. Powerful patron nations control all the wormholes while subordinate client nations must contract with patrons to use them. The Sub-Saharan Union, a small client nation, longs for independence from the hegemonic Congregate, which controls access to the only wormhole to and from their planetary system. For decades the Union’s Sixth Expeditionary Force, made up of obsolete, second-hand warships, developed advanced weapons and propulsion technology in secret. To launch their attack before the Congregate learns of its existence, the Sixth needs to cross a wormhole axis controlled and defended by the Federation of Puppet Theocracies. The Puppets want half the Union’s souped-up warships as payment for passage across the axis, a price too high for the Union to pay. Trying to force their way across the axis would end with more of their ships destroyed or damaged than they would have lost if they had made the deal.
Enter homo quantus Belisarius Arjona, one of an engineered human sub-species whose brains are essentially quantum computers. Belisarius is an exile from his own people, a free agent who uses his quantum intellect to pull off complex confidence schemes for paying clients. The Union hires Belisarius to do the impossible: move the entire Sixth Expeditionary Force across the Puppet axis without the Puppets knowing it. To do so, Belisarius needs to assemble a team comprising all the various sub-species humans have engineered over the centuries, each bringing a unique skill set to the table. But Belisarius has something more personal at stake in the outcome than he can let on, and the slightest miscalculation could mean sacrificing himself and everyone he cares about.
The future history Künsken conjures is a dizzying miracle, so expansive and packed with detail, yet we still get the feeling the author is only scratching the surface. The structure of the heist story, in which “getting the band together” occupies a significant portion of the narrative, is perfect for sneaking in plot-dependent infodumps: someone always needs something explained to them in such scenes. Meanwhile, Künsken keeps dropping brain-blistering science-fictional concepts on the reader, because why settle for one cool idea when several dozen will do. The Union’s ships are powered by virtual particles that jump in and out of existence and carry an inflationary force akin to the expanding universe. It’s the kind of concept sci-fi authors build entire novels around, but Künsken just tosses it into the bin like he’s got plenty more to spare.
Crime caper stories are reliant on sleight of hand; the plot of The Quantum Magician features the requisite double blinds and bait-and-switches, disseminated with a proficiency and confidence expected of a veteran author (Künsken has been publishing short fiction for over a decade). I must admit that I preferred watching the dominoes line up to watching them fall. Once Belisarius and his crew set the plan in motion, the story hits all its marks, but the execution feels a little perfunctory. What the novel gets right, though, is that its band of gene-engineered ne’er-do-wells, and especially Belisarius, are desperate to find meaning in their lives and willing to risk everything to get it. Pulling that off is the long game The Quantum Magician plays well.