Tag Archives: Ada Palmer

Book Review: Seven Surrenders by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning was one of my favorite novels of 2016, and it was certainly among the year’s most unusual and ambitiously daring pieces of speculative fiction. Nevertheless, it felt a little unfinished, and anyone who loved it has no doubt been waiting with bated breath for the sequel that seemed necessary to complete what Too Like the Lightning started. Seven Surrenders is everything I thought/hoped it would be, with a vivid setting, intricate plot, high level philosophical and political ponderings and fascinating cast of characters, a truly worthy sequel to its brilliant predecessor and a powerfully compelling introduction to the conflict to come in the next book in the series.

The future that Palmer envisions is still utopian-seeming, though some of the shine was certainly worn off by the end of Too Like the Lightning. In Seven Surrenders, we get even more details of the organization of society, government and families in this imagined future, and many of the questions that Lightning left us with are answered. The relationships and interplay between the various Hives are more interesting the more one learns of them, and the ‘bash family unit is more fully explained in this volume as well. In short, everything makes more and more sense the more you read of this series. I love that Palmer doesn’t spend a ton of time on tedious exposition on these matters, which would amount to hand-holding, but a glossary, appendix or wiki could be highly useful.

That said, I read Lightning as an ebook but Surrenders in hardcover and I found it of great convenience to more easily be able to flip back and forward in the book to check information and reread sections to make sure I understood it. This is definitely a title that benefits from being read on dead trees instead of a screen, which I suppose is, incidentally, appropriate given the deliberately old-timey style of Mycroft Canner’s narration. Though I’ve largely transitioned to reading books digitally over the last few years, every now and then a title comes along that gives me a renewed appreciation for books as useful objects, enjoyable tactile experiences and beautiful artifacts. This is one of those books. If you can, get the hardcover. You won’t regret it, and it will look great on your shelf when you’re done.

Mycroft Canner continues to be one of the most challenging characters in the genre. After the revelations about his past crimes in Lightning, he begins Surrenders in something of confessional mood. Though many of the ugly details of Mycroft’s crimes have already been revealed, Surrenders gives us a much deeper understanding of why he did it. We also learn more about nearly all the book’s other characters as their murder conspiracy, which keeps the whole world at peace, is unraveled and falls apart. Mycroft’s relationships to the structures of power in this world are explained. Other characters’ secret identities and motives are revealed. There are plots on plots on plots that are uncovered over the course of four hundred pages that detail just a few days of events and a couple of legit miracles. It’s heady stuff. I suggest taking notes.

The big draw to this series, for me, is still the philosophy and the politics. I wouldn’t say that this is a particularly plausible future society, though that may simply be because I have a very difficult time imagining how we might evolve from here to there, but it’s a marvelous idea for how to organize a peaceful society. The political dynamics are complex and nuanced, and the Saneer-Weeksbooth conspiracy adds a great dystopian element to be explored. Palmer’s ideas about gender are somewhat less well-developed, although significant time is spent on gender in this volume. Mycroft’s use of gendered pronouns is inconsistent and the explanation given for Madame’s plot to reintroduce gender roles into society is less than convincing; frankly, I feel as if there is some huge complicated idea trying to be communicated that I’m just not quite getting. My hope is that this theme will carry on to the next books in the series, which promise to be about war.

Listen. There’s not a ton to write about this series without giving the whole story away, and it’s hard to discuss the ideas in it without it turning into a lengthy thinkpiece, and I can’t even guarantee that you’ll get the concept. But there’s nothing else like this series being published right now. Too Like the Lightning was a revelation, and Seven Surrenders shines even brighter than its predecessor. The stage is set for the next pair of books to explore what a war might looks like in a world that hasn’t warred in centuries, and you can’t possibly want to miss that. I know that this isn’t a series for everybody, but I still can’t help suggesting that everyone read it as soon as possible. It’s a work of rare and special genius.

Thank you to the publisher for sending me an early copy for review. 

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.