The Quantum Magician – Look, I Really Tried

the-quantum-magician-9781781085707_hrSeriously, I did (see title). I really, really wanted to like The Quantum Magician, by Derek Künsken. The book has a fantastic premise, a cool world, awe inspiring physics, and a story that I was genuinely invested in. Unfortunately, in addition to all of this it has one of the most unlikable protagonists I have read in recent years. I can tell that he was supposed to be unlikable, he’s a rogue with loose morals, but you succeeded a little too well Künsken. Our lead, Belisarius (or Bel), cruises into the unlikable zone with relative ease in the first 50 pages – but then just keeps on trucking into utter bastard in the next 100. Disclaimer, I only got about 50% of the way through this book before I put it down – but I feel informed enough to extrapolate my feelings from the first half. If another reviewer out there has read the full book, which would be hard as I only received it as an ARC from the lovely people at Solaris in exchange for a honest review (sorry guys), and thinks the second half is god’s gift to literature – I will happily read the second half and amend this review. However, until then I am sticking to my guns and using them to blow this novel out of the sky.

We start on a high note. The premise of The Quantum Magician is a cool one: in a world ruled by massive federations of planets, a rogue world wants to smuggle an advanced fleet of warships across contended space to wage a war of independence. In order to do this, they have hired our protagonist, Belisarius – the quantum magician, who is known to perform miracles when it comes to retrieving or moving materials. Belisarius is indeed an incredible con-man/thief, but he is accustomed to stealing/moving things slightly smaller than a fleet of spaceships. There is a fun hint of mystery in the story, as initially it is very unclear as to why this rogue group even wants to move these warships. They seem wildly outdated, underpowered, and seem to have a very strange and confusing design. Thus, for our protagonist, this job represents both a mystery to unravel (why they want to move the ships) and potentially his greatest accomplishment – a crime to go down in legend. To pull this feat off, Belisarius will use a plethora of tricks and cons that revolve around quantum physics – which he does a good job explaining. Unfortunately, he does it with a smarmy and condescending attitude that makes it hard to take his commentary seriously.

I was originally attracted to Bel. You learn early on that he is a genetically engineered human who can manually enhance his brain to view quantum states. It sounded fairly similar to someone with high functioning autism, and I was looking forward to a story from that perspective. The problem with Bel is that, while he has the skills of an incredible con-man, he has the charisma of a sack of mud and the arrogance of an American hedge fund manager just prior to 2008. When he enhances his brain, he essentially redirects processing power from other parts of his intelligence into specific areas. As a result, he can momentarily become the greatest physicist in the universe in exchange for being absolute garbage at everything else – such as human interaction. Künsken demonstrates this effect through tons of moments in the book where Bel solves an extremely complicated problem, but comes off like an unlikable jackass. The issue with this is it essentially soured all the emotional payoff in the book. Every single time that Bel did something cool that won my affection, he immediately said something cringe worthy that curb stomped my budding love. This lessens the various climaxes throughout the book and made me slowly come to resent Bel.

Bel’s lack of social graces are a seriously problematic design choice for me, and it made it hard to recommend The Quantum Magician. However, if you aren’t bothered by his holier-than-thou attitude there is a lot here to still like. The science is realistic, cool, and explained in a way that anyone can understand it – which takes real talent. The world piqued my curiosity, and who doesn’t want to read a story about smuggling a fleet of warships? Apparently me, when it is told from the POV of a complete dick.

Rating: The Quantum Magician – 4.0/10
-Andrew

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The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn – A Gritty Adventure With A Cast Of One

35838132I am back from Europe where I bought way too many heavy books that I had to carry home. While on my trip I managed to read a number of books that I am excited to talk about, starting with The Thousand Deaths of Ardor Benn, by Tyler Whitesides. The book actually comes out today, and since I haven’t seen a lot of people talking about it, I thought I would do my duty to bring it to your attention.

Ardor Benn is a massive (~800 pages) heist novel that I have had my eye on for awhile. It is Tyler’s debut work and is extremely impressive in size and scope for a first book. The story follows the aforementioned Ardor Benn, ruse artist extraordinaire, as he steals from the rich and gives to himself across the archipelago in which the story takes place. The world and plot that Tyler has created in this book is definitely its best quality, and is one of the most interesting settings I have come across. Ardor, known for his con talents, is sought out by a priest who hires him for a multi-stage heist to save the world. The heist part of this heist novel is excellent with each stage being complicated, exciting, and engrossing as you watch Ardor and his crew work through a series of roadblocks on the way to their prize. The pacing is mostly good, with the book moving quickly despite its massive size, but there were a few moments where it felt like the plot was dragging its feet as it went through the minutiae of planning various ruses. In the end though, the plot kept me deeply invested until the last page despite a couple of issues becoming apparent the deeper I got into the novel. However, before I talk about the bad, let’s talk about more of the great: the worldbuilding.

The world of Ardor Benn is fascinating, deep, and well written with a complicated nation laid out for you over the course of the novel. You slowly learn about the backstory, government, religion, and economy of the islands, and Tyler has made an original and interesting world that I want to be in. In addition, there is a “magic system” that revolves around a substance called “grit” – material that has been fed to, and pooped out of, dragons for processing. Depending on the material fed to the dragons, different kinds of explosive grit can be made to do a number of different things such as: make orbs of light, cancel gravity, create explosions, or form barriers. The book heavily revolves around grit, and it is a cool idea for a weapon that results in tons of weird fights where people are using the various effects to gain an upper hand.

Although I loved the world and the plot, Ardon Benn was not flawless and as I got further and further into the book, a number of small issues started to snowball. First, the characters. A key issue with this heist novel is that despite the book having multiple POV, more than one antagonist, and a number of side characters, there is really only one character of import in the story – Ardor Benn. Ardor is a great character himself, but the more time that you spend with his supporting cast, the more you realize that they have no depth and are only there to make Ardor look good. Take Ardor’s partner in crime and oldest friend, Raek. I was super excited to get to know Raek, a goliath of a man who is great at math, because his introduction was awesome. However, as the book progressed, Raek would disappear for hundreds of pages at a time – only to return when Ardor needed a cool tool or gadget that only Raek could make. Then there was the thief that Ardor partners with for this massive ruse, Quarrah. Quarrah was clearly meant to be a major part of the narrative, even being one of the POV’s through which the book was narrated. But at the end of the day, Quarrah’s story really only consists of her having internal monologues about one of two things – how her skills as a thief have left her woefully unprepared to be a con artist (which while true, got super old after 400 pages of it) and how Ardor Benn was the greatest person she has ever met in every possible way. Both Raek and Quarrah has no depth at all, and I found myself very unmoved when they revealed their backstories later in the novel. I am slightly exaggerating when I say the only character was Ardor; both the priest who hires them for the job and the King they are trying to rob (spoilers) are interesting and fun – but it doesn’t do enough to make up for the fact that 80% of the book revolves around Ardor. The book is simply too long to spend that much time talking about one person.

The one additional problem that Ardor Benn has, besides some of it cast, is Tyler tends to over explain what is happening in the book sometimes. There was one instance in particular that is burned into my mind, where one character threatened another (very obviously) and Tyler wrote what felt like a paragraph of internal monologue of the threatened character saying “this guy is threatening me”. A big part of the fun in heist novels is the balance of understanding what is going on, and the mystery of guessing at what you don’t get. Tyler leaned a little to much into giving the reader full understanding and it turned a few passages that might have been thrilling into dull exposition.

Despite ragging on it for two paragraphs, I want to stress that the plot and world of this book are one of a kind and I definitely still recommend it and will be continuing on with the series myself. This is a very impressive debut and Tyler Whitesides is clearly a talented writer with a lot of potential. However, there are still a few kinks in his writing and this book desperately needs some more leads to share the narrative load. All in all, it was an original and thrilling read, and if you can get past some issues I am sure you will love The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn.

Rating: The Thousand Deaths Of Ardor Benn – 7.0/10
-Andrew

Six of Crows – Finding Out What Everyone Is Cawing About

six_of_crowsSix of Crows, by Leigh Bardugo, has been sitting on my to-do list for a very long time. The book is a wildly successful YA heist novel that is a spin off of another wildly successful YA series, the Grisha Verse. I have had a ton of people I know tell me they loved the series and recommend it to me because I love the Lies of Locke Lamora, but there have always been a few personal red flags that led me to suspect I might not enjoy it as much as friends thought I would. However, the book has been on my list long enough that I decided to say screw it and just read it and see what I thought.

I went into Six of Crows not having read its parent series, and I was happy to find out that I definitely didn’t need to have read the Grisha Verse to understand what was going on and get invested. The story is fairly standard for a heist novel: a crew of six charismatic people with their own issues sets out to make a big score. The initial plan fails miserably, and then the team must use each individual’s unique skills to compensate and succeed. The heist in question is essentially about rescuing a prisoner from a military installation that is heavily fortified.

Our main protagonist, and heist gang leader, is Kaz Brekker – a mastermind who is on a secret quest of vengeance that is furthered by the heist. It’s not the most original backstory, but I grew to enjoy Kaz and his blunt mannerisms. The crew consists of (and I’m paraphrasing here a little) the mastermind, an inside man, a thief, a marksman, a courtesan, and a demolitions expert). When I initially started the book I found three of the characters (Kaz, the inside man, and the courtesan) a bit grating on the nerves, but instantly loved the other three. In addition, I came around on every one of them by the end of the book. Each character has their own reasons for being on the heist and their own objectives, and I feel that Leigh does a wonderful job intertwining the personal stories of the characters with the heist story of the group. The character dialogue is fun and easy, and the personalities of the group are varied enough that there is something for every reader.

The plot actually felt a little lackluster for a heist novel, but the book made up for it in its worldbuilding. I assume that the Grisha Verse has a lot of this as well, but the world that the characters inhabit is extremely well fleshed out and deep. My favorite part of the book was the analysis of the culture of the country that the prison was in as part of the heist planning. It all felt like I was learning about real places, which is rare for any book – let alone a YA novel.

My one major criticism of Six of Crows is that it feels like the novel was “dumbed down” to fit the YA label. It feels like it has the structure for a much larger and extensive heist novel in place, but then it was redone to make it more appealing to a younger audience. This is most apparent in the character backstories, with each character having a story and skill set that had me placing them in their late 20’s to mid 30’s. So when I realized that the cast were all supposed to be teenagers, I had a serious break from immersion. I have a really hard time believing that some of the cast had enough years of experience to have some of the skills they proclaimed to have (which is a weird nitpick I know, but it really pulled me out of the book).

At the end of the day, I don’t think Six of Crows is quite as good as many other reviewers feel – but I also think it would be hard for anyone to not enjoy it a least a little. Leigh Bardugo clearly has a serious talent for worldbuilding and characters, and I hope she does some more adult fantasy in her future. If you are looking for a fun heist novel that’s an easy read with a memorable cast and forgettable plot, this might be for you.

Rating: Six of Crows – 7.5/10

-Andrew

(P.S. Whoever designed that cover art deserves some sort of award. It is probably in my top 10 best designed covers ever.)