Was this book on my TBR? NOPE. But we were on a long train journey and I’d finished The New York Trilogy and it was either work on my own manuscript or steal Spuggy’s book.
So, this book had been vaguely on my radar for a while, because I stalk the Goodreads of everyone I know (surprise, friends!), and it seemed to be universally enjoyed. Weird, fun, grandiose sci fi.
Usually I try to steer clear of books with larger than life protagonists. I guess I just hate fun, or I’m not very good at escapism, but there’s something inside me that will not bow to the idea of one single character being the centre of the universe. I was emphatically not a Lestat girl (give me Louis and his melancholy candlewatching any day). I still can’t quite bring myself to read The Wise Man’s Fear because Kvothe is not just a perfect smart musical sad-backstoried genius who is weird about women, but he manages not even to accomplish more than ONE of the many feats he brags about on the back of the book. “You may have heard of me?” I BEG TO DIFFER. GETTING A DRAGON DRUNK ONE TIME DOES NOT QUALIFY YOU FOR ALL MY ADORATION.
Maybe it is because I am jealous. Maybe I just find it galling to watch fictional people find things so easy when I find so many things so difficult. Maybe it’s a writing thing, even, and I resent writers who can write with such colour and intensity, when blandness is one of my deepest fears for my own work.
I don’t think so, though. I think I just know that I wouldn’t get along with these perfect, selfish loners in real life. There are some kinds of unlikeable or flawed characters that I would hate in real life but that I absolutely love spending time with in fiction, but something about this particular collection of traits just gets my back up. It’s not a terrible objective flaw in the books themselves, just a matter of taste. And that’s fine!
Jean Le Flambeur, whose very name gives him away as one of these bombastic characters, should by all rights be in their number, but… he actually didn’t annoy me. The greatest space thief in the universe or whatever, and our first person narrator (except when we get the third person sections of Mieli and Isidore), Le Flambeur is heartless and innocent by turns, and rather than carrying him out on their shoulders, many of the characters who know him (as the reader doesn’t yet know him) treat him like anyone would treat a charismatic but toxic person that they have cut out of their life. Not everyone, of course, he has different relationships with different characters from his past, and these consequences, the flowers sprung up from the seeds he planted twenty years ago in the Martian city he finds himself revisiting, reflect the care he gave them then.
I’m going to try not to be very spoilery in this one, because I went into it knowing nothing and it was great.
Rajaniemi drops a lot on the reader in the beginning. A lot of terms and concepts, made harder to follow by action scenes and the general chaos of life after being broken out of a cell in a very rules-oriented prison, but once you get into it, the world feels that much more vivid for having these concepts, some of them complicated and original. The Martian concept of gevulot, a nuanced privacy screen that’s part of a person’s being, is one of my favourites. Particularly resonant now. And though the idea of time as a currency isn’t particularly new (time is money, after all) the way the citizens pay and the cycle they live in were fascinating. I’ve been assured that the hard sci fi is mostly terms given to ridiculously advanced things, so in that sense I could get into Fantasy Brain and accept what I was told without freaking out over tough scientific concepts.
I loved the Martian aesthetic. We were in Venice when I was reading it, and it was very easy to imagine the old, dusty maze of the city from there.
I sort of want to say that Isidore’s plotline felt a bit too distant from Jean’s for too long, but I enjoyed it so much I couldn’t hold it against Rajaniemi for indulging. The one thing that was maybe a bit too much for me was the zoku. If you’ve read it, you can probably guess what I mean. It smacked a little too much of Rajaniemi finding a cool idea and running with it for the sake of it. And I get that that’s what makes for fun fiction, but ehhh, it hit a bum note for me. That’s how these things go – you take risks and make choices, and you accept that sometimes they don’t work, because when they do work they are sublime.
I enjoyed pretty much everything else about it apart from that. The tzaddikim and their various roles in the society, the quiets, the interlude chapters… It was fun, but it was more than just a fun romp. It played with some really cool ideas, that I look forward to going back to in the rest of the trilogy.