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It’s a Steal

The Causal Angel  (Jean le Flambeur, volume 3)

By Hannu Rajaniemi 

7 Dec, 2023

Space Opera That Doesn't Suck


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2014’s The Causal Angel is the third and thus far final book in Hannu Rajaniemi’s Jean le Flambeur post-singularity caper series.

Mistakes were made. The All-Defector is wreaking havoc. The Sobornost, the post-human civilization that dominates the Solar System, appears to have descended into civil war. Love interest and co-protagonist Mieli has been kidnapped! Being a significant contributor to the current chaos, it is up to Jean le Flambeur to save the day.

Who is Mieli? Who is Jean le Flambeur? If you have to ask, you have not read the previous two books. Do not attempt this one without having read both The Quantum Thief and The Fractal Prince.

Mieli is prisoner of the Zoku, a congeries of special purpose communities each focused on a different obsession. As this is a world in which most people are software, not unique individuals in physical bodies, the Zokus can craft Mieli’s perceived environment to suit their goals. Thus, Mieli can never be sure what she experiences is real, to the extent anything can be said to be real, or a test by the Zoku of Mieli’s submissiveness.

The Sobornost and the Zoku disagree fundamentally on certain philosophical tenets, the Sobornost goals being anathema to the Zoku. The Sobornost tearing itself apart in civil disorder should be good news … except that there exist at this time weapons able to destroy worlds, and this being an era of wheels within wheels, what seems to be internal discord could be a ruse to conceal something entirely undesirable for the Sobornost’s neighbors.

In this world of super science bordering on magic, there exists a treasure that could solve everyone’s problems, the Kaminari Gem. The Gem fulfills wishes. There are a couple of catches, the most obvious being that one must possess the Gem to use it. More interestingly, the Gem only grants wishes that are a net benefit for the universe, a prerequisite few can satisfy.

Jean, of course, has a bold plan to live up to his obligations, restore a lost city, save Mieli, acquire the tools he needs, and generally speaking save the day. If that plan fails, Jean will always have another scheme waiting. However, the one opponent Jean has never out-thought is the All-Defector and it is the All-Defector who is the Big Bad in this novel. Perhaps there is no sequel because the All-Defector wins!


I usually find it hard to take software entities seriously as characters. They are mutable, copiable, and don’t really face the same existential stakes as physical people. All characters are fiction, but software beings are a bit too fictional for my taste.

Despite this prejudice, I found that I actually did care what happened to some of the central characters in this novel. No small achievement, given my inclination not see entities of their sort as characters at all.

Some elements pertaining to the Zokus may be unfamiliar to younger readers, drawing as they do online communities long since snuffed out. For example, a young person reading A Fire Upon the Deep could miss the Usenet references, Usenet being a medium of communication popular in the Elizabethan1 age. This book is only ten years old, but online life is inherently ephemeral.

Rajaniemi shares with John M. Ford a disinclination to explain the novel’s setting beyond the explanations someone living in his universe would need. After all, few of us expound on the history of internal combustion engines before riding a bus. However, this finale is a lot less opaque than the previous two books. One might even say it borders on straightforward.

That said, while I would not call the plot complex, it is complicated. This would be a book that does not lend itself to a 400-word synopsis. Nevertheless, Rajaniemi skillfully keeps all his plates in the air without dropping any.

Causal Angel is, I think, the best of the three Jean le Flambeur novels. However, it is not stand-alone and I wonder how many people would get this far without being put off by the opacity of previous entries. No doubt I will find out in comments.

The Causal Angel is available here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

1: Second Elizabeth, not the first.