Book Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning is a tremendously, gloriously wonderful book that seems like an obvious contender for all of the genre awards next year. It’s a remarkably original, refreshingly optimistic (but not cloyingly so), and deeply challenging read that demands the reader’s full attention. It’s a novel that is difficult at times, but it’s very much worth taking the time—and it may take quite a while—to work through.

The narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a convict in a utopian future where the world is administered collectively by enormous “hives” of philosophically like-minded people and tied together with a system of flying cars that have made travel faster and safer than ever before. As a convict, Mycroft’s sentence is a life of servitude and enforced poverty; he and others like him are essentially public property, bound in service to the community for life. Too Like the Lightning is the first part (I understand the series is planned as four books) of Mycroft’s account of significant events in the year 2454.

There’s not much to say about the plot that wouldn’t be a spoiler, but suffice it to say that there are several slowly, methodically unfolding mysteries contained in this book. It’s a story that isn’t as complicated as it seems, with much of the book’s seeming complexity owing to Ada Palmer’s intricately humane portrayal of Mycroft Canner as a character rather than to any particular complexity of the plot itself. Some of the novel’s high reading level also comes from the affectation (Palmer’s and Mycroft’s) of telling the story in such an antiquated fashion (in the style of the 18th century from which most of the book’s characters’ philosophies are taken). As a great lover of 18th and 19th century literature and philosophy, this put Too Like the Lightning about a hundred and ten percent right up my alley, but it definitely makes for a novel that may require some googling in order to truly appreciate it if you don’t have the requisite background to “get” it right away.

Where Too Like the Lightning really shines is in the worldbuilding department, and there aren’t even proper words to describe how delightful it is to read something so fresh and different. Certainly, one can see marks of many of the usual genre influencers along with the influences of more literary classics as well as works of philosophy and actual history, but Too Like the Lightning really isn’t quite like anything else I’ve ever read. For one thing, in a sea of modern dystopias that seek to explore all the ways in which theoretical utopias can fail, Palmer’s imagined future stands out for being an actually utopian one, and the book is a sort of look at what makes that kind of utopia tick. From eliminating gendered language to banning public displays of religion to the system of flying cars that are teased on the book’s cover to the reorganization of family life, Palmer has thought of answers for nearly all the world’s problems. Those she hasn’t, she’s been sure to include a group of people—the Utopians—in her book that are dedicated to improving on near-perfection.

Margaret Atwood has said that every utopia has a little dystopia in it, and Too Like the Lightning digs deep into examining this idea, looking for and often directly at some of the underlying ugliness that supports the world its author has dreamed up. Mostly, this is accomplished through the observations of the narrator, Mycroft, who offers a unique perspective on a world that he is decidedly set apart from while still embroiled in the events he’s recounting. Mycroft’s personal history, which is one of the central mysteries of the book, comes into play about two thirds of the way through and in a significant way that forces the reader as well as some of the other characters to wrestle with some big ideas. I won’t say it was entirely unexpected, but it’s a pretty major twist and I love a book that challenges my expectations the way this one did.

All things considered, though—little dystopia or not—the world of Too Like the Lightning is one I wouldn’t mind living in, and I feel privileged to have gotten to spend so much time there with this novel. If there’s one problem with it, it’s only that there’s not enough of it. There is no real resolution to most of the problems and conflicts the book introduces, which makes me think that the ultimate success of it is going to rely on the how well things go with the rest of the series. That said, I have a feeling it’s going to be just fine, and I can’t wait to read Seven Surrenders and find out what happens next.

This review is based on a copy of the book received through NetGalley.

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