The Qubit Zirconium
M Darusha Wehm
The KeyForge titles published by Aconyte Books are an incredibly timely and hugely important reminder that science-fiction stories can be fun, light-hearted escapism instead of following the current trend of incredibly serious, almost grim-dark style of writing that seems to be dominating the genre at this time. While the latter fiction can be extremely enjoyable and engaging (see Tim Pratt’s utterly superb The Fractured Void, also recently published by Aconyte, as a great example) I think the past 18 months have demonstrated that there is a real need for fiction that is brighter and more upbeat: stories that can be a positive form of escapism to counteract the incredibly depressing events that have taken place across the globe. As such, I was incredibly excited to get an advanced review copy of The Qubit Zirconium, the latest KeyForge novel from Aconyte Books and penned by award-winning sci-fi author M Darusha Wehm. I first encountered Wehm in the Tales from the Crucible anthology, the first KeyForge book published by Aconyte, and was utterly delighted by their contribution, Wibble and Pplimz, Investigators for Hire which blended the colourful and chaotic KeyForge setting with a hard-boiled detective story, featuring two delightfully eccentric and quietly hilarious protagonists in the form of the worryingly enthusiastic shapeshifter Wibble, and the taciturn android Pplimz.
I found the story to be evocatively written, cunningly plotted and the most unusual tale in the anthology, and fell in love with the two detectives. They seemed like the most obvious characters in the anthology to deserve their own spinoff story, and I was therefore delighted when it was announced that they would feature in a full-length novel by Wehm. I grabbed a review copy from NetGalley as soon as I could, and while real-world events conspired to keep me from reading it immediately, I knew that when I was finally able to get around to reading it, it would be just the thing I needed to act as a pick-me-up. The Qubit Zirconium features the usual fantastic cover art I’ve come to expect from Aconyte, illustrator Natalie Russo delivering a striking and upbeat piece of art showing the duo travelling through a desert landscape; and it’s accompanied by an intriguing back-cover blurb that features a former client in need of help, theft, a potential murder, and a sinister secret society aiming to change the very nature of the Crucible itself. It all sounded hugely exciting, and I dived right in and got reading.
We join our intrepid heroes in something of a quiet period, with no clients on the books, resulting in Pplimz sitting at his desk quietly waiting, and Wibble trying to spin cards into a hat. Fortunately for us as readers, their downtime is interrupted by a video-call from a former client, Taupe the Tailor (or possibly Tailor the Taupe), an elf who’s found himself on the run and subsequently looking for help from the duo. Accused of stealing valuable jewellery from the Star Alliance, a newly-arrived faction on the artificial planet, the elf wants the detectives to prove his innocence. But as their investigation unfolds, it proves to be far more complex than a mere missing item of jewellery, and in fact uncovers a plot to fundamentally change the nature of The Crucible and the fate of its inhabitants. It becomes clear as the two detectives investigate that there is more to the Qubit Zirconium than it simply being an attractive piece of jewellery; why do so many beings across the entire Crucible want to possess it so badly that they would resort to theft, and possibly even murder? And what does it have to do with a mysterious group known as the Cult of the Architects, and their plans for the Crucible and every sentient being living on the artificial planet? In order to find out, the two detectives will travel across the Crucible and find themselves visiting a delightfully varied and colourful set of locations, as well as dealing with duplicitous inhabitants – alien and human alike – and getting into more than a few scrapes along the way.
As you read through The Qubit Zirconium, it immediately becomes clear that Wehm knows exactly how to write a compelling and intricate mystery thriller, deftly interweaving surprising events and colourful characters with complex motivations to create an engaging and multi-faceted narrative that is always utterly enthralling and keeps you on the edge of your seat. While the investigation begins with the simple theft of the Qubit Zirconium, like all great mysteries it soon becomes far more intricate and involved for the two detectives, with Wehm delving into the fascinating world of the Crucible and just what it means to live on the artificially-engineered world – and the lengths some people might willingly go to in order to try and fundamentally change it. Wehm obviously has an innate understanding of the setting, because they really get to the very heart of the Crucible, and indeed KeyForge as a whole, while still managing the incredible feat of expertly blending together light-hearted fun and complex moral and even philosophical issues. There were a number of times when Wehm’s narrative posed questions that seemed to have bearings on real-life matters and even my own life, and it was a fascinating – and unique – experience to be laughing on one page, and then frowning in contemplation the next.
In addition to the complex, interweaving narrative and the questions it poses, Wehm makes superb use of the varied locations and climates found on the Crucible to liven up the plot and even help it to progress. They populate the story with some fantastical locations for Wibble and Pplimz to visit in the course of their investigation – from the delightful-sounding Floating Pines Resort, populated with levitating trees, to the militaristic environs of a Martian outpost, and even Quantum City, an entire city built around the ruins of a starship that recently crash-landed on the Crucible. There are times when the novel is as much a tour of the Crucible and its inhabitants as it is a detective story: or perhaps its more accurate to say both are expertly blended together. Every location is engaging and memorable, and half the fun of reading the novel is anticipating just what strange and bizarre locale Wehm has dreamt up for us next. Quantum City is particularly fascinating, not just for the artful way in which Wehm brings it to life, but also for the potential that the city and its inhabitants – a Federation-like organisation known as the Star Alliance – have to shake up the Crucible and its population. It’s an intriguing setting, and one that I’d like to see explored in more detail by Wehm in later KeyForge titles.
Of course, I can hardly finish the review without mentioning the fantastic and varied cast of characters that Wehm populates the novel with, where even bit-part characters are described with such energy and detail that they feel like protagonists in their own stories. Wibble and Pplimz continue to be a delightfully dynamic and memorable pair of protagonists to follow along with as the narrative unfolds. Their gentle bickering and the unusual nature of their partnership creates a relationship that comes across as entirely organic and unforced, and each has a distinct basis for their character – from Pplimz’s quietly cynical humour and fastidioudness, to Wibble’s relentless cheerfulness and unwavering sense of adventure. And Wehm deftly gets across the alien nature of both detectives through clever use of pronouns and descriptions of the ever-changing nature of their physical forms, whilst still retaining that innate humanity that makes them truly engaging and unique as protagonists. The narrative even provides Wehm with some opportunities to really expand their characters beyond their fun and vibrant exteriors, posing both of them some questions as the plot advances that make both Wibble and Pplimz more sympathetic and three-dimensional to the reader.
Hugely imaginative, powerfully written and imbued with an innate sense of fun and enjoyment that makes everything sparkle with energy, and with an incredibly surprising ending that I didn’t even come close to predicting, The Qubit Zirconium is one of the best books yet published by Aconyte Books, and also one of the most enjoyable and engaging science-fiction novels that I have ever had the pleasure of reading. It’s an absolute joy to read, almost every page making me laugh or smirking due to Wehm’s infectious sense of humour and wit, and Wehm making spectacular use of the KeyForge setting and propelling it to even greater heights of fun and vibrancy. Reading The Qubit Zirconium has recharged my enthusiasm and passion for the science-fiction genre, and I’m absolutely certain it will do the same for anyone else who reads it. I cannot wait to see what Wibble and Pplimz will investigate next time, and I can be certain that I will be right alongside them and Wehm when they do so.