Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Time travel stories are tricky. The best ones give me a headache but not too much of a headache. I guess it’s the literary equivalent of the adrenaline rush one gets from momentarily being upside down on a roller coaster (which is definitely not for me): I want my brain to hurt as I contemplate 4-, 11-, or 22-dimensional spacetime … but I don’t want to get so confused that I feel the author could basically just do anything. (This is why Doctor Who is often such a crapshoot depending on who is writing for it.) Fortunately, with The Quantum Garden, Derek Künsken returns with all of the magic from The Quantum Magician—and honestly, I think he outdoes himself this time!
I received a copy of this for free from NetGalley and Solaris.
Belisarius Arjona has succeeded in pulling off his biggest con yet. The results, however, are a little more dramatic than he might have wanted. He has precipitated a war between two large powers. He stole a pair of time gates. And as the book opens, he watches a warship from one of those powers exact retribution on him by destroying the home of his subspecies, Homo quantus. Now, if I were in his position, I would probably not deal with that loss very well. Belisarius has a … different idea. He has some wormholes that let him travel in time, so naturally … he just travels back in time two weeks and develops a gambit to save his people. It’s not quite that simple, of course, because it will also end up involving travelling forty years into the past, accidentally wiping out an entire species, shattering someone’s entire perception of themselves and their wife … need I go on?
I’d forgotten how much humour these books have. I dove back into this universe and immediately started enjoying it, although to be honest, it wasn’t until Stills showed up that I truly started laughing out loud:
“Yup. And I need a pilot.”
“Good, I thought this was gonna be tempting or something. I’m already altruisted out, saving the Union. They got the best flying. Sorry.”
“I need a pilot to fly me through time,” Arjona said.
“Malparido hìjeoputa. Are you shitting me?”
“I never have,” Arjona said.
“For the love of…. Goddamn! Can’t you ever just rob a bank or something?”
I’d forgotten how Stills’ unapologetic vulgarity is an excellent chaser to the quantum mechanical technobabble from some of the other characters. The diversity of Künsken’s characterization remains top notch. Moreover, this particular exchange tickled me because it perfectly lampshades the absurd scope of some of Bel’s adventures without being too cutesy about it. It’s like how the main characters of Stargate SG-1 eventually start joking, around seasons 7 and 8, about how many times they’ve saved the planet: they’ve earned the ability to do that, both in the show and the show itself. The Quantum Garden is much the same. Some books will make a comment like this, and it will annoy me, because the book has done nothing to earn such grandiose comments. Künsken definitely has, with both the first book and now its sequel.
Interestingly, as some of you may know, heists are my kryptonite as far as stories go … yet I actually preferred this book, which is less of a heist than the first one. It’s more straight-up espionage. But I think Künsken took everything that I liked about the first book and amplified it here, while having a tighter cast of characters and a less convoluted plot (and that is saying something, considering that we’re involving some knotty time travel here!).
The time travel logic, while definitely timey-wimey, makes sense if you unpack it. I can see the thoughtfulness on display, the way Künsken was careful to set everything up to avoid paradoxes while still maintaining a sense of suspense. That’s not easy to do.
Related to the time travel would be the Hortus quantus Bel encounters in the past, and their very unique mode of existence/propagation. Künsken demonstrates even more creativity than we encountered in the first book (which is saying something)—I love when authors push the boundaries of what we can conceive, when it comes to alien beings, and this species is quite something! It’s so easy for people to dismiss quantum mechanics as “weird,” simply because it is unintuitive owing to our three-dimensional bias. Yet if you push past that initial weirdness, you can explore and play with so many cool concepts and ideas. This is why I love reading posthuman SF like The Quantum Garden.
Most of the main characters experience some good growth. In particular, I like how Cassandra has more opportunities to shine and come into her own. She has more responsibilities, and it galvanizes her into being a more decisive actor. She holds her own with Stills as they battle the Scarecrow, and it’s a sight to see! As far as the Scarecrow goes, this is a small area in which The Quantum Garden disappoints. We learn a lot more about his origins, which is fine, but as an antagonist goes he’s fairly unimpressive in this book. I’m hoping that changes in the next one.
The story is exciting and entertaining all the way through: I literally only put this down to go to work after I started reading it on Tuesday morning, and I stayed up way too late trying to finish it that evening. It’s not for e everyone, but if this subgenre is what you enjoy, you are in for a treat. Künsken builds on what came before while setting up the tantalizing possibility of more stories, more adventures, more bright ideas. This is one of my top reads of 2019 for sure.