The Quantum Thief came out in 2010 in Britain and 2011 in the US, and it got a lot of attention at the time. I always intended to read the book, but somehow I just didn't get around to it until now. And I am happy to say that, unlike certain other books that have gotten a lot of buzz (The Windup Girl, for instance), I actually enjoyed this one.
The Quantum Thief is Jean le Flambeur, who at the beginning of the novel is in the Dilemma Prison, designed to try to rehabilitate criminals by having them endlessly play out game theory scenarios in the hope that they will learn to cooperate. Mostly it involves getting killed, over and over again. He is sprung from the prison by Mieli, a rather unpleasant woman who is working for a Sobornost goddess who has a plan and needs a thief.
They proceed to the Moving City of Oubliette on Mars, in order to try to dig up a part of Jean's past that he had hidden away from himself and the Archons. They get involved with gogol pirates and a sort-of detective named Isidore with a Zoku girlfriend who sometimes works with the tzaddikim to solve crimes. We also delve into the secrets of the cryptarchs and the Quiet and the Voice, and trying to avoid an attack by the phoboi.
You may notice that I'm using a lot of terms without explaining what they mean. So does Rajaniemi. The world-building is a bit bewildering, because he is constantly throwing out terms and ideas and bits of backstory (such as events in the past called the Revolution, the Collapse, the Spike, and the Protocol War) without any explanation. The reader can eventually piece together the meanings of some of these concepts by the end of the book, as Rajaniemi drops oblique hints that can be put together, but nothing is explained up front, and lots of things are never explained at all.
Which isn't to say that the book isn't enjoyable. It's actually very good, that combination that is so rare and precious to me these days as a jaded reader: both very entertaining and unpredictable. I couldn't anticipate where things were going, half the time I didn't even understand what was going on. But the story just bounced right along and I didn't worry too much about the stuff that didn't make much sense, because I wanted to know what happened next. I read the book last weekend, so today I did a quick re-read to refresh my memory and see if I could make more sense of it. In some ways, I did understand it better the second time. In other ways, there are still things that don't make much sense or are just never explained. It's a book where you just need to sit back and relax and trust that the author knows where he's going, and not sweat the small stuff. It was, overall, a challenging but rewarding read, and I am looking forward to reading the second book in the series, The Fractal Prince. This was really good.