The Quantum Garden: A worthy sequel

The Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken science fiction and fantasy book and audiobook reviewsThe Quantum Garden by Derek Künsken

The Quantum Garden (2019) is the second installment of Derek Künsken’s QUANTUM EVOLUTION series, following the adventures of conman Belisarius Arjona, one of a few thousands of “Homo quantus” — a bio-engineered species able to deal with floods of data, strange math, and quantum effects. The first book in the series, The Quantum Magician, saw Belisarius gather a crew of misfits in order to help an oppressed “client culture” smuggle a fleet of uniquely advanced spaceships through a wormhole so as to gain their independence from the powerful Congregate. Belisarius, however, was running a con-within-a-con, and while he succeeded in helping the Sub-Saharan Union get their ships and their freedom, he also pulled off a major heist, stealing a portable wormhole/time machine. In The Quantum Garden, Arjona has to deal with the repercussions of both his successes.

The novel opens with a bang, literally, as Belisarius and his former lover/current partner Cassandra witness the destruction of the Homo quantus homebase (The Garret) by the Congregate, who have decided the Homo quantus are too much of a threat. Belisarius is devastated by guilt over how his actions led to a genocide that left him and Cassandra the last of their kind, but quickly realizes he can potentially use his stolen “time gates” to travel back in time to prevent the destruction. Unfortunately, he’ll need the help of the Union, the group he stole the gates from, and who has put a bounty on his head. All while he and Cassandra are being tracked by a “Scarecrow” — a sort of zombie-cyborg-robot used as relentless agents by the Congregate a la Skynet’s terminators.

Without going into details, Belisarius manages to convince the Union, and he and former ally-turned-enemy-turned-enemy/ally Major Ayen Iekanjika travel back in time 40 years, to the Union’s early days in hiding back when they discovered the Time Gates. There, two subplots arise. One involves Belisarius’ attempts to understand an indigenous species of mobile, sentient plants. The other centers on Iekanjika getting embroiled in the Union’s swirling political intrigue, some of which may or may not have led to the murder of her mother, currently pregnant with Iekanjika herself, who is due to born in a few days. A third subplot has Cassandra and foul-mouthed pilot Stills (from book one) dealing with the Scarecrow.

Book 1

Given that The Quantum Magician was a sort of sci-fi Ocean’s 11, Künsken could have taken the easy sequel path of Ocean’s 12 and 13 by having the same old team pull a different heist with higher stakes. Instead, Künsken has gone a different road and offered up more of an intimate political thriller combined with elements of a First Contact story seasoned with a generous dash of Back to the Future.

Künsken’s imagination and originality remains a strength of the series. The plant species, dubbed Hortus quantus, although admittedly hard to wrap one’s head around, is a fascinating concept, and I liked how their potential extinction mirrors the genocide of Belisarius’ people 40 years in the future (or last week — time travel stories!). The technobabble surrounding the Hortus and other elements of The Quantum Garden can, at times, be a bit clunky, as with the first book, but it never intrudes to such an extent that it truly mars the reading experience. And while the characterization felt a little flat in The Quantum Magician, it’s much more rich and dynamic here. Belisarius is more introspective and deepened both by his guilt and by his interaction with the Hortus. Iekanjika, meanwhile, has to face the fact that her people’s history, and more directly her own, isn’t exactly what she’s thought all these years, knowledge she’ll have to try and adapt to even as she negotiates the increasingly tense problems of causality and paradox created by time travel. Her revaluation of just what it is that has made her her over the years is one of the stronger storylines. Even the Scarecrow, which could have been played as a simple villain, gets a rich background story. Cassandra’s storyline leads to less introspection, but her character shows growth as well, becoming more confidently active as she moves from dealing with the destruction of her home and people to trying to evade the Scarecrow. Even Stills, by the end, has to reconsider his usual path of thinking/action as new possibilities arise, though mostly his purpose in the novel is to provide some needed humor and energy, a job he excels at. As when Belisarius tries to convince him to take part in his new venture:

“You’re rich now, prancy-pants. Go frolic on your mountain top.”

Derek Künsken

Derek Künsken

“I need this,” Arjona said. “And need your help again. I have a bigger con.”

Don’t ask.

Don’t ask.

Don’t. Fucking. Ask.
“What’s the con?” Stills asked …
“I’m going to hide the Homo Quantus … all of them.”

“Good. I thought this was gonna be tempting or something. I’m already altruized out, saving the Union … Sorry.”

“I need a pilot to fly me through time,” Arjona said …
“For the love of … Goddamn.! Can’t you ever just rob a bank or something?”

There are a few pacing issues here and there, where maybe things slow a little too much or the techno-speak, whether about quantum phenomena or time paradoxes, as noted gets a little heavy. And it’s a smaller, quieter book than its predecessor, though I wouldn’t say that as a criticism; it’s neither better nor worse I’d say, just different in style, tone, and structure. Finally, while The Quantum Garden resolves the current crisis, it also leaves several plot points hanging and opens up a whole new world(s) of potential. I’m curious as to where Künsken takes these characters next.

Published in October 2019. THE ULTIMATE CHASE. Days ago, Belisarius pulled off the most audacious con job in history. He’s rich, he’s back with the love of his life, and he has the Time Gates, the most valuable things in existence. Nothing could spoil this… …except the utter destruction of his people and their world. To save them, he has to make a new deal with the boss he just double-crossed, travel back in time and work his quantum magic once again. If he can avoid detection, dodge paradox and stay ahead of the eerie, relentless Scarecrow, he might just get back to his own time alive.

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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One comment

  1. Sounds great….going to add this to my Kindle! Thanks Bill!!

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