the Little Red Reviewer

The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken

Posted on: March 13, 2019

The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken

published 2018

Where I got it: purchased new









Belisarius Arjona gets bored easily.  A homo quantus, he’s able to enter a savant trance to access the quantum computing parts of his brain, giving him the ability (and undeniable urge) to understand the patterns of the universe, the mathematical why behind how everything works.  His kind were designed by a banking group, determined to create people who could see where the markets would go. He’s as close to a mentat as we’ll ever get.


Uninterested in financial markets, and even less interested in the mostly naval gazing of his peers, Bel keeps himself busy doing easy things that keep his mind distracted. Easy things like confidence schemes.   He might be known as “the magician” in crime circles, but even he thinks his new con job is ridiculous: he’s been hired to get twelve warships through a public and very expensive wormhole. Even if he can get the first ship through, by the time the rest start coming through the game will be up and the local defenses will be on super high alert. Why did he take this crazy job again? Well, the pay is pretty good, and there’s also that other thing. . .


In Ocean’s Eleven style, Bel spends a few chapters collecting his team – meeting up with new resources and recruiting old friends.  I felt thrown in the deep end the first 20 pages or so, so those handful of slower chapters where Bel is getting the band together were the perfect way for me to learn about the world, the different genetically modified sub-species of humans that we’ve created, the politics of the situation, and Bel’s place in the world.  His art gallery suddenly seems so much creepier.


With all the “quantum” being thrown around, I was super nervous that The Quantum Magician was going to read like a Greg Egan, where I couldn’t keep up with the math.  Yes, this book is jam packed with physics and biology and quantum mechanics (why didn’t someone tell me before how cool quantum entangled particles are!!), and zero g maneuvers and adjusting for so many atmospheres and triangulation and the insides of wormholes.  Here’s the thing – math is the language of the universe, and if presented correctly, it becomes the poetry of the universe. Künsken made math and physics as fun and as beautiful as I know it can be, he made it into the sweeping architecture of a cathedral. Books like The Quantum Magician are why I love hard science fiction – if the math supports it, anything is possible. Even though sometimes it looks like magic.


“The math was comfortingly inescapable”, says Bel.  It may be inescapable, but math gives you the blueprints to do anything in the universe.   Similarly, the inescapable math tell Belisarius that next time he goes into a deep savant mode known as fugue, he won’t be able to come out of it. The need for knowledge will overwhelm his physical need for survival.

Fugue concerns aside, his team for the crazy job includes his old friend William, now terminally ill; his sort of ex-girfriend Cassandra, who is also a homo quantus, Marie, a demolitions expert who had to be broken out of jail;  a powerful AI who is convinced he is a reincarnation of Saint Matthew; Stills, a deep sea diver who can only survive under hundreds of atmospheres and whose genetic manipulations make him resemble a manatee; Del Casal, a mad scientist slash geneticist; and Gates-15 who is a Puppet who claims to be broken, a.k.a. free.  If that sounds like a lot of characters to keep track of, don’t worry about it – the important ones get plenty of page time. The tricky thing is that other than Saint Matthew and William, Bel isn’t sure how far he can trust any of these people. When you’re running the galaxy’s largest confidence scheme, you better have a lot of trust in your team or a really good back up plan, as at these scales, things don’t go just a little bit wrong.


To give you an idea of what kind of scale we’re working with (other than the  dozen gigantic warships and the freakin’ wormholes), there is this excellent scene where we’re on an ocean planet, and the gang rents out the bottom penthouse of a fancy hotel (the floor that is deepest in the ocean). Marie has to build an airlock so that Stills can get out into the ocean, and, um, do stuff. When I say it, it doesn’t sound so great, but this scene is SO INTENSE!  And Marie and Stills need their own book. Stills is, complicated. Saint Matthew is hilarious. Marie is also hilarious, albeit in a very different way. And someone on Bel’s team is lying.


No matter what Belisarius’s skills are, I’ve decided he’s an irredeemable asshole.  He ran a god damn Puppet art gallery, he knew exactly what he was sending William into.  Yes, William volunteered, yes there was plenty of “insurance”, but Bel knew. He knew what was going to happen to William, and he pushed his friend to do this anyway.  Did William get something out of it? Yes. But still. It’s an unforgivable dick move to ask your friend to do something like that.


I need to write a “I need to unpack this book” post, as I have a LOT to say about the Puppets. It’s not so much what the fuck is wrong with the Puppets, it’s what the fuck is wrong with humanity that we genetically designed them to be that way?  They’re a train wreck. I can’t look away, but I feel filthy inside for staring. But here’s the thing: The Puppets didn’t do anything wrong. They did exactly as they were genetically designed to do. Like I said, I got some shit to unpack here.


So yeah, this book is FULL of hard scifi goodies – plenty of talk of entangled particles, the physics of wormholes, quantum theory, electroplaques, biology, how the brain works, etc.  The Quantum Magician feels like what would happen if Locke Lamora landed in Bank’s The Culture, and if Locke had a lot to say about depraved humans. And I do love me a con artist story!


Also? The writing is brilliant, the pacing is damn near perfect, the dialog is fun and snarky, the characters are great, I couldn’t put this book down!  The Quantum Magician will definitely be on my Best of the Year list! And YEAH, there is a sequel coming!!!


I’ll leave you with this – in a quantum universe, many basic principles involve mutually exclusivity.  The cat is either alive or dead, it’s either a wave or a particle. You can’t have your cake and eat it too.  So, what would the calculation have to look like for the cat to be both alive and dead at the same time?


5 Responses to "The Quantum Magician by Derek Kunsken"

Picked it up on your strong recommendation. Also it was 1.99 on kindle so basically free. Moved relatively high in the to-read pile. Sounds like my cup of tea. Love hard sci-fi.

Liked by 1 person

bump it to the top of the list so we can talk about it! 🙂 I wonder if the kindle deal is because the sequel was just announced? and wow, only $1.99? that is practically free! can barely get a cup of coffee that cheap these days.


Wow! This sounds absolutely something I NEED to read. ASAP.


and there’s a sequel coming! more goodness!

Liked by 1 person

[…] have just bought The Quantum Magician by Derek Künsken because of Little Red Reviewer’s kickass review, Rosewater by Tade Thompson because of Mogsy’s (over at Bibliosanctum) brilliant review and […]


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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