You will criticize me, reader, for writing this review of Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning in the style that the book itself notes is six hundred years removed from the events it describes (though only two hundred years removed for myself). But it is the style of the Enlightenment and this book tells the story of a world shaped by those ideals.
I must apologize, reader, for I am about to commit the sin of a plot summary, but I beg you to give me your trust for just a few paragraphs longer. There are two main threads to this novel. One concerns a young boy named Bridger who has the ability to make inanimate objects come to life. Being young and having a few wise adult supervisors, he practices these miracles mostly on toys. Such is the way they try to understand his powers while hiding from the authorities, who would surely attempt to exploit the young child ruthlessly.
Looking after Bridger is Thisbe Saneer, a member of prominent bash’ (basically a house containing a family that is less biological or romance than interest-based, though all seem to coexist in this world) that controls the world’s transportation network and Mycroft Canner, who is our erstwhile narrator. He’s also a mass murderer, like a combination of Jigsaw and Hannibal Lecter. He was long ago caught for torturing and murdering an entire bash’ (a crime we’re told, repeatedly, was the worst in centuries), but in this society, most criminals are not sent to prison, but instead are relgated to becoming a “servicer” who wears a uniform and serves at the pleasure of society. With his Hannibal-esqe intelligence, Mycroft is actually highly sought-after by the most powerful people in the world, frequently mixing with rulers and highly-influential businesses. At least, he wants us to believe this is so. It is unclear as yet why Mycroft has such an interesting service regime. Has he been conditioned, Clockwork Orange-style, to be less violent? Or is there something deeper at work here? He’s our narrator, and we should, reader, assume that he’s an unreliable one (even if it’s not entirely clear in this initial volume of the series how this will manifest). Regardless, Mycroft has taken it upon himself to protect Bridger from the world powers in whose orbits he revolves (at least, until Bridger is old enough to fend for himself).
The other plot thread has to do with a stolen a Seven-Ten list (more on that in a moment) that mysteriously shows up at Thisbe’s bash’ house. A crude attempt at a frame-up that is immediately seen for what it is, but investigation is unavoidable. This bash’ is responsible for the world’s transportation network, after all, and if it was so easily broken into, this must be investigated, which, alas, may have the unintended consequence of exposing Bridger.
So Seven-Ten lists. There are things about the worldbuilding that might give pause, but this, reader, is perhaps the most difficult thing to swallow in the book. Each year, a number of publications present listicles in which the worlds most influential people are ranked. For some unfathomable reason, a given leader’s position on these lists can actually have a profound effect on the political, social, and economic order of the entire planet. Surely, these lists are based on some sort of objective, measurable criteria, right? No, dear reader, they are not! Completely subjective, and some appear to be ghost-written by the equivalent of a bright intern who thought it might be fun to shake things up. It is very nearly a bridge too far, reader, enough to almost make this feel like a Buzzfeed-feuled dystopia.
But no, reader, I exaggerate. Listicle worship aside, the rest of this world feels balanced and approachable, if not entirely convincing. Depending on one’s predilections, one could even go the opposite route and see a utopia in the making. On a personal level, I find that unconvincing though. This setting has the ring of tradeoffs. For example, there is a sort of internet that is easily and freely accessed by a device called a “tracker”, which I think you can intuit also provides various surveillance capabilities to authorities. It gives you convenient access to information and travel networks, but at the price of privacy. This isn’t new, reader, it’s just a simple and perhaps even likely extrapolation of current trends. Sure, it’d be a big change for us but after a period of adjustment, we’d probably get along fine. Not utopia fine, but just regular fine, complete with tradeoffs, like we’ve always had to deal with. Other aspects of the worldbuilding are somewhat less successful. Each of the “Hives” have interesting concepts attached, but we don’t really see how they play out and none of those concepts are sufficiently explored. There’s a lot of “telling” without actually “showing”, and all we really get a look at is the “Great Men” of this world.
Is this style starting to get to you, reader? Surely it is my own lack of knowledge and skill that grates, but my experience with the novel’s narration was sometimes strained as well. Science Fiction is infamous for its exposition and info-dumps, and indeed, this device provides an interesting and perhaps more justified approach than most. On the other hand, exposition and info-dumps are still out in full force, and this strategy, while clever, might also have provided a false sense of security for the author. The information that is summarily and frequently dumped on us, reader, is often interesting in its own light, but in context presents certain challenges. Pacing, for example, becomes a genuine problem. It’s difficult to get into the story when you’re constantly being interrupted. This is absolutely intentional, but self-awareness does not necessarily make it less of a flaw.
The information on offer ranges from worldbuilding tidbits to philosophical interludes to sexposition (a sequence that I must admit, reader, fooled me in precisely the way Palmer intended) to character background to Mycroft’s running commentary, a sort of humorless MST3King of the plot as it unfolds. Some of these are vital, others work at first but chafe after a certain point. The Eighteenth Century direct address and prostration for forgiveness bits work fine at the start, but halfway through the book, on the umpteenth occasion that our narrator lectures us on gender pronouns, it grates. Not because of the subject mater, reader, but because of the repetition and dismissive assumptions. I get it, and the gender pronoun contretemps presents some thought provoking ideas that have generated some interesting debate in the fandom. But after the dozenth time the plot is interrupted to rehash that very same idea, I was less willing to go with the device.
I have been calling you reader, but I’m virtually certain you do not frequent my writings. This is not an admonishment, reader! Just context, since you may not have seen a recent pointer to Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, in which that estimable author perfectly describes my feelings on this book’s stylistic trappings. He calls it “perpetrating hooptedoodle”, and that, dear reader, is what this book is filled with. Also this review, so let it be clear, reader, that I’m not above hooptedoodle. But I’m not nominated for a Hugo award either, and with good reason.
All that being said, there is much boiling under the surface here. As absurd as the Seven-Ten lists are, their superficial nature belies the fragile balance the various world powers have struck. There’s clearly more going on here than the lists, which, indeed, appear to be a red herring and are dealt with in pretty short order. But the investigation of Thisbe’s bash’ does present other problems, and not just for Bridger. I must admit, reader, that this book had nearly lost me before the revelations of its final chapter (a chapter, I should note, that is not narrated by Mycroft, who you must remember is an unreliable narrator). Are those revelations enough to get me to read on? Will the potential be fulfilled? And how, reader, shall I rank this amongst other Hugo finalists?
In order to emphasize the incomplete nature of this story, I was going to try and end this review on a cliffhanger. Perhaps just finish the review mid-sentence, or add a “To be continued in one year…” note. But that would be unfair to you, reader, and to the author as well. It still does beg the question though: Is this like one of those TV series where you have to get through the frustrating first season to get to the good stuff? Or one of those video games where it, like, totally gets better after you put 40 hours into it? I almost certainly wouldn’t read the sequel to this book, with the one caveat that the Hugo Awards tend to revisit series throughout, and this feels like it could be one of those. This is clearly ambitious stuff, and I am curious about some of the open plot threads. The revelations of the ending could certainly lend themselves to a more engaging narrative and let’s not forget some of the logical endpoints of the Enlightenment, such as the Reign of Terror in France. Will this series actually go there? I admit curiosity, but not so much that I’d check it out without nudging from a second Hugo nomination. For all its interesting ideas and ambition, as it stands now, this book would fall somewhere towards the bottom of my current ballot.