Book Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

11 Aug


It’s the 25th century, but William Buck Rogers is not emerging from several hundred years of sleep. Earth, however, is very different than the 21st century we know. Political changes, several rounds, have radically altered the geopolitics. People are affiliated with global political entities, physical borders being a thing of the past. So, too, technological abundance has not made a utopia, but definitely a society whose problems and issues and weaknesses are extremely different than our own. And people’s values, taboos and concerns have changed, to make a fascinating landscape alien to our own.

And a young boy may bring it all down because he can do the literally impossible. Bridger, a young boy secreted away in the House of one of the crucial clans of this 25th-century world, is kept hidden for very good reason. His wishes, you see, come true. He can animate things, and perhaps do more, things nigh inexplicable even by the science of the day.


All of this and more is in Ada Palmer’s debut fiction novel, Too Like the Lightning, the first in the Terra Ignota sequence. Ostensibly the novel is the account, the story of one Mycroft Canner, a reprobate of the 25th century that, for a crime that we only late in the novel learn about, has been sentenced to a form of wandering servitude across the changed Earth of this time. It is in the course of that servitude that Mycroft comes into contact with Bridger. The novel takes the tack of showing us this unusual boy right off, and lets the implications of the boy’s power sink in. As I started reading the novel, my understanding of Bridger slowly morphed from “Hunh, so he can do magic” to “this could bring down this entire society” as I grew to understand the world of Terra Ignota. I began to see, as the philosophies of the world, and the philosophies that the author is looking to engage the reader in, just how world-breaking Bridger really is, especially given that he himself does not realize it.

The novel’s strength is in its worldbuilding. It’s a fascinating, strange world that the author has come up with for her 25th-century man to introduce us to. The flying cars that are a transport oligopoly by the Saneer-Weeksbooth ‘bash are really the least strange thing that readers will find in this world. This is a world where public displays of religion are not allowed, but there are people who act as personal chaplains, called sensayers, who fill that role for people behind closed doors. The jockeying and jostling between the clan-like Hives make up the political landscape of this world. Now that I have read Malka Older’s Infomocracy, the Hives of this novel  feel like an nth-generation descendant through a funhouse mirror of the political units in Older’s. The Hives are more than just politics, though, they are an ethos and a way of life, and the adherents of Mitsubishi are very different than those who follow the Utopians. My favorite, which will be no surprise, are the Masons, who go in for the whole Neo-Roman experience, complete with learning a revised form of Latin.

The word play, the affectations of style, is the defining aspect of this novel and readers will either cotton to it and absorb the novel like a sponge, or will hate it and be thrown out of the story. Mycroft, our narrator, takes a lot of time to break the “fourth wall” and address the reader and discuss his own recollection with the reader. As the framing device specifies on the first page, this is an account, after the fact, of events, and some years removed from those events. Mycroft has had time to experience and think about what has happened and why, and that comes through on the page. But it is more than that. Oftentimes, he will digress on the nature of his world, such as his discussion of gender pronouns. It’s a layering of the worldbuilding, where Mycroft gives us details in bringing up commentary on the uses of such things within the text. And he also comments on the events as well. It appears that there are multiple readers in this fourth-wall breaking, the reader for whom Mycroft has really written the book, in his own time and space, and then the reader out-of-time, the person holding the book itself. For the most part, the tone of the comments are pointed at the first, but the author cleverly makes it so that it seems the comments are for the actual reader itself. The book takes pains, on the rare times that we leave Mycroft’s point of view, to show just how and why it is in this account.

The classical allusions, the deep philosophy, the many references make this anything but a casual read. It is slow and sedate, interested in and of itself and its world.  Readers of fast plotting and action will be sorely disappointed, and this is a book to be savored and thought about, not galloped through. In many cases, even as well read as I was, I felt that I was not qualified, in some senses, to read the book. It was a book I reached mightily to completely grok, and I am not sure that I succeeded. Like a Gene Wolfe novel, there are rewards here for the well-traveled reader but perhaps some of those rewards were a bit too rarefied. Given the brilliance and curriculum vitae of the author, I am perhaps not surprised.

The major weakness, in my opinion, of Too Like the Lightning goes to an abiding bugbear of mine — the incomplete story problem, compounded with a lack of an ending. After several hundred interesting and fascinating pages, setting up the initial problem, and slowly revealing, as I said, a truly fascinating world to us, and uncovering the true nature of our narrator, the novel comes to a screaming halt. It just ends. There is some chatter from our fourth wall breaking narrator about finishing the tale, but that’s really just it. It. Just. Stops.

Yes, I understand that publishing is a business and writing is, too. And constrictions and publishing realities for both sometimes mean that books get divided in a Solomonian solution. This is absolutely nothing new. Back when Charles Stross’ Merchant Princes novels were first released here in the US, the same thing happened. The books got chopped into bits, and with frayed threads rather than anything like clean breaks. I disliked it strongly then, and said so (although I was invisible on the internet, then), and I dislike it now. And, personally, a fully formed story, even as part of a series, or a duology, is easier to keep in mind and remain in memory than a story that just stops, because for me that fully formed story has a shape to it.

The Book to compare this to, and the most allied book I can think of, is Jo Walton’s The Just City (and sequels). The Just City even has a hat tip to Ada Palmer in the beginning of the book, and the ties between the books in terms of thematic matter are strong. Jo Walton, in turn, is noted in the acknowledgements to this book. The philosophies espoused and explored are often very different, but it is that exploration of classical thought, and how it intersects, informs and influences science fiction and fantasy, in which the two novels share a lot of DNA. Too Like the Lightning is far less straightforward than The Just City, with a lot more play with words, language and narrative techniques, not that The Just City is at all a straightforward book.  I think readers would be best served by reading Jo Walton first before tackling Ada Palmer.

However, where The Just City succeeds where Too Like the Lightning fails is that, while The Just City is the start of an entire trilogy, it tells a complete story in its first volume. Events and problems are set up for the next two novels, certainly. But a reader can exit The Just City having been told a whole story, and be satisfied with at least the completeness of that story even if they don’t want to go on to the next novels. Too Like the Lightning fails in that regard.

My sincere recommendation for fans of The Just City, for the people that like a heavy dose of classics, philosophy and thinky thoughts in their SF, is to wait for Seven Surrenders, the second book in the series, and then read them together.  I understand that Terra Ignota is slated to be a four-volume series, but perhaps like the aforementioned Merchant Princes debacle, there is a complete story within the first two volumes that could be read together as a more satisfactory unit, than this single first volume was for me.


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