Book Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3.5 of 5 stars
Genre: Science Fiction
Series: Book 1 of Terra Ignota
Publisher: Tor (May 10, 2016)
Length: 432 pages
Has a book ever made you feel completely uncertain of how you’ll rate it? Like, what if you’re blown away by its ideas, but at the same time they make you feel utterly out of your depth? Or maybe, a book that you didn’t think would fit your tastes actually ends up surprising the hell out of you. Truth be told, it’s not often that I experience such conflict with a novel, but I’m also not surprised to find myself feeling like this about Too Like the Lightning. After all, it only makes sense that a complex book will require a complex review.
Technically, Ada Palma’s debut novel can be described as political science fiction, but that’s also a gross oversimplification, for here you will also find plenty of historical allusions, social commentary, and philosophical discourse—all coupled with more traditional elements of the genre. In addition, the “story” here isn’t really that but a whole lot more, but I’ll go further into that later. First, we’re introduced to our narrator, Mycroft Canner, writing this account in the year 2454. The world has transformed into a utopia where fast, expedient travel to and from any point in the world has effectively made ideas like borders and nation states obsolete. Instead, almost everyone belongs in one of the handful of mega-factions made up of millions or billions of people. The nuclear family unit has also been replaced by a more dynamic form called a “bash’”, which can vary in size and composition of related or unrelated individuals. And war? War is another topic that one only reads about in the history books.
Mycroft is known as a “Servicer”, a convict serving out his sentence by being as useful as he can to society. Over time, he has grown close to the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’, whose members are the custodians of this world’s transportation system, a position which gives them considerable renown and power. However, for years the bash’ has also managed to hide a big secret from everyone, sheltering a young boy with the power to work miracles. With little to no effort at all, thirteen-year-old Bridger has the power to bring inanimate objects to life whenever he pleases. Because of his status as an honorary member of the bash’, Mycroft is included in the small group of those who are aware of Bridger’s existence, but that circle is about to be widened with the sudden arrival of an appointed spiritual advisor, or sensayer, named Carlyle Foster.
This description is also merely half of it though, because while all this is happening, all kinds of political machinations are taking place in the upper echelons of the power structure. The book is laced with a thread of mystery here, involving a much elaborate theft of something called a Seven-Ten list, which is a who’s who of the world’s movers and shakers. Naturally, the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ is caught in the middle of it, and in their investigations to find out more, Mycroft and others in this narrative find themselves engaging in various political and philosophical dialogues.
To be sure, Too Like the Lightning is actually quite light on plot, but heavy in its social and literary themes. As I said, it’s not so much a story but a Conversation-with-a-capital-C. Here you will find cultural and scientific debates, existentialist questions, explorations into multiple fields of art and history. The book also has lots to say about a variety of subjects, from gender roles to religion. It’s amazing, really. Phenomenal, even. Palmer’s vision is ambitious and unique, drawing from the philosophical movement and spheres of ideas that changed the face of Europe in the 18th century to create this fully-fleshed setting, a world which appears to have gone through its own Age of Enlightenment. The dramatically altered world through Mycroft’s eyes is nothing like our own. Strange, beautiful, and full of wonder, life in this book might not be perfect, but the possibilities are limitless.
That said, this is an odd novel. There’s no other word for it. And I confess, had I been more impatient while reading this, I might have been tempted to set this one aside for later—not because it is a bad book, but because it so far from what I would normally read for entertainment that it might as well be from another universe. Ultimately, I’m glad that I read it to its completion because it was an incredible experience, but I admit there were times where it felt almost too difficult or daunting to continue, especially when I first started. This was also a slow read, because there’s no rushing a book like this; it’s a work of art meant to be savored, consumed, and digested thoroughly.
If I could do it all over again, I probably wouldn’t have read Too Like the Lightning over a period of several days. Instead, I would have taken my time, whether it took weeks or months, in order to give myself plenty of time to chew on the many issues and ideas presented in this novel. A longer timeline might also serve to alleviate a lot of the confusion, breaking down the staggering amount of information you need to know to understand the story into more manageable pieces. A book like this practically screams for a glossary, as there are so many new words and terms to learn, so many new concepts and customs to familiarize yourself with, and of course, almost all the characters seem to have more than one name, and it was an exhausting mental exercise just to keep track of them all.
Still, it does get easier. The narratives surrounding Mycroft’s mission to protect Bridger, the boy who seemingly works miracles, was many times more interesting to me than the mystery involving the theft of the Seven-Ten list—at least at first. Once those two threads started coming together, I became more fascinated and invested. Then came the surprises, like the truth behind mild-mannered Mycroft’s crime and how he ended up a Servicer, or the massive revelations dropped on us at the end of the book.
Fair warning though, as this was intended to be the first half of a duology, there will be no resolutions to be found here, since all that will be planned for part two, Seven Surrenders. Having finished Too Like the Lightning, I feel that I know a lot more now to better prepare myself for the sequel. This book is guaranteed to make you think, and will no doubt be a delight for those who enjoy philosophy. It’s a very rich, thought-provoking experience, even if it is perhaps a bit impenetrable at times. If you’re feeling up for a challenging read—because impressive or not, this can be a very demanding novel—then you might want to give this one a look.