Seriously, 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 They seem wildly outdated, underpowered, and seem to have a very strange and confusing design.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