Recent reads: Deathless and the Quantum Thief

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Deathless: I loved Catherynne M Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales and The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but was never really convinced with the other adult book I attempted from her (Palimpsest). This, however… is glorious. It’s a retelling of a Russian fairytale (the Death of Koschei the Deathless), though that doesn’t really matter for your enjoyment of the book (I only found out about this afterwards).
Set in Communist Russia before WWII, Deathless tells the story of Maria Morevna, who sees more clearly than everyone else the cracks around the world: this destines her to be the bride of Koschei, the Tsar of Life, locked in an endless war with Viy, the Tsar of Death. It starts out like a fairytale (three birds transform into men and come for three brides), and then very quickly becomes something else, a mixture between myth and history: the creatures of myth are also affected by the rise of communism, and one of the book’s best sections is set in Leningrad during the war, chronicling the slow decline of a city under siege. Valente uses the narration to question several of the fairytale tropes, from the submissive and erased women to the role of villains (I loved Baba Yaga’s role in the denouement). And the writing is utterly lovely without being too purple, a thing of beauty from beginning to end. Very much recommended.

The Quantum Thief by Hannu Rajaniemi: many things in there are rave-worthy–top-notch worldbuilding, brimming with ideas, sizzling plot… It’s set in a future version of our Solar System, dominated by the AI-like Sobornost. Jean le Flambeur is one of the greatest thieves, but he was caught by the Sobornost and put in a Dilemma Prison, fighting endless duels against copies of himself until his mind has been wiped into compliance. He hasn’t expected Mieli: working for the Pelligrini, a mysterious goddess-like entity, Miele has need of a thief–and she breaks Jean out of jail.
Their quest will lead them to Mars, to the Oubliette, which overthrew its rulers in a bloody Revolution, and is now one of the main enclaves free from the Sobornost. As I said, lots of cool ideas. I loved the concept of gevulot, the privacy settings of the Oubliette: if someone doesn’t open their gevulot to you, you might not even see them, and contracts rule everything from how you see people to the sharing and recording of memories. Plus, it’s full of geeky tidbits, like the keys being generated from the root node of a tree, and robots that can steal time…
But what actually fuels my deep, abiding love for this book are the Arsène Lupin references. I grew up on a steady diet of stories of the gentleman-thief (and I loved those as much as I loved the Sherlock Holmes books), and the book is full of them. One of the main characters, Isidore Beautrelet, is actually taken from Maurice Leblanc’s L’Aiguille Creuse, and the plot has regular references to Arsène Lupin scenes, such as the Christian Uruth episode, which, as I dimly recall, is a mash between two short stories (can’t remember the first, the second is “Herlock Sholmès Arrives Too Late). And there’s Thibermesnil and Raoul (d’Andrésy) and Raymonde (de Saint-Véran), and Paul Sernine, an alias of the protagonist who hands out nine Watches to nine friends (among other things, Lupin’s alias Paul Sernine Prince Rénine, a near-copy of other alias Paul Sernine, is the male protagonist of a collection of short stories called The Eight Strokes of the Clock)… I’ll stop gushing now, but this is very much awesome stuff, and I’m so glad it’s in an SF book! (and it has a sequel! Which I’m so waiting for now.)
From a quick google search, I’m kind of surprised how few review sites picked up on that angle, though, which is glaringly obvious to me (and anyone who’s read L’Aiguille Creuse). I was wondering–how well known is Arsène Lupin in the UK/US? Has Maurice Leblanc been translated into English? (here, he’s practically a household name).

6 comments

  1. I’m glad you wrote about Quantum Thief, because it’s scheduled to go on my blog on Friday. (If I finish (start??) the review in time.) I had no idea about this Lupin guy – at first I thought you were referring to Lupin the Third, the famous anime character. (Probably based on the original??) Now I feel like I did when I read Hyperion w/o knowing any Keats, like half the book just blew by me. Hugely fun book, though.

  2. He, looking forward to reading it!
    And Lupin III is very clearly inspired from the French guy (there’s an Arsène Lupin story called “The Countess of Cagliostro”). For all that, the anime doesn’t have a lot in common with the books: I dearly love them both, but Lupin III just isn’t larger-than-life, unlike Arsène Lupin (and though there are goofy moments in the books, the French books are much more somber and earnest than the anime).
    If that’s any comfort, I also read Hyperion without knowing Keats, and I still liked it 🙂

  3. I’ll let you know when I post it, though real life has been interfering with my identity as a hard-nosed yet insightful critic.
    I believe that I read about Lupin III and it talked about the original at some point, but I’ve never been an expert. The Castle of Cagliostro is a great show though, one of the best Lupin stories. Of course, considering the director, that’s no surprise.
    Hyperion was great. Now that you mention it, I think this is probably a good angle to start my own review from. Thanks for the seed crystal!

  4. He. I didn’t much care for the anime (bit of fun but kind of forgetable), but the Castle of Cagliostro is indeed great.
    Thanks for the seed crystal
    You’re welcome!

  5. My wife just wandered in while I was reading this and, after ordering me to try more of your recipes, said something like, “Oh yeah, The Thief Lupin? Those are famous kids books in Japan.” So apparently everyone knows about this besides me.
    The review is going up within 10 minutes of my submitting this comment. I’ll email the link later, since it always feels a bit crass putting it in a comment.

  6. so apparently everyone knows about this besides me
    He 🙂 That’s cool they’re famous in Japan, I had no idea. They were translated into English in the twenties, but they fell out of print soon afterwards, I think…

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