Too Like the Lightning
by Ada Palmer
Edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden
Cover Artist: Victor Mosquera
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765378002
Date: 10 May 2016 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, the first book in the four volume Terra Ignota series, is a very difficult, but rewarding, read. The book is incredibly polished, especially for a first novel. Based on this book, I predict Palmer will become an important voice in science fiction.
Palmer has created a very complex 25th century society with as many connections to the world of the 18th century as it does to our 21st. The political situation, treatment of gender, attitudes toward religion, philosophy, and ways criminals are punished are all complexingly different from those of today. The narration is written in the style of the 18th century, occasionally lapses into script format, and in a few spots even speaks directly to (and argues with) the reader. Moreover, the narrator, a convicted criminal made into a servant, keeps secrets from the other characters and even the reader; I am still not really sure of his full allegiances.
In this 25th century, countries have been replaced by nonphysical groupings called hives, all of which have different governing structures. The government is run by an Emperor and a Senate which represents the hives. Instead of nuclear families, households, called bashes, have multiple adults and children belonging to the same hive (although children can change hives when they grow up). Gender distinctions are officially taboo and most characters are referred to as "they"; however, the narrator does assign gender for some characters to match physical appearance. Religion has been outlawed and no group discussion of religion is allowed without the presence of a sensayer, who teaches about all religions and philosophies and lead people to develop their own beliefs without favoring one.
The plot is just as complicated as the setting. The narrator, Mycroft Canner, is at the Saneer-Weeksbooth household when Carlyle Foster, their new sensayer, comes for an appointment and accidently discovers that Bridger, a thirteen year old child, has seemingly divine power, a secret kept by Mycroft and Thisbe Saneer. Carlyle convinces them that his theological training would be helpful for a child with the powers of a god. Meanwhile, Martin Guildbreaker, an investigator for the Emperor, has visited the same house because a newspaper's politically important list of the top 10 important people had mysteriously vanished from the newspaper and reappeared in their house.
So the book is part mystery, part politics, and part theology/philosophy. As Martin and his team investigate the Saneer-Weeksbooths, Carlyle and Thisbe investigate the investigators. In the process, the reader learns several secrets of the Empire including an effort by one family's head to place their adopted children into prominent positions with the other hives, a religious cult worshipping a living human, a secret brothel frequented by heads of all the hives, and a murderous conspiracy.
The book does have a few weak points. Mycroft seems implausibly well-connected and present at a lot of meeting of different groups of leaders. Some of this is explained, such as faking a romance with Thisbe to justify his frequent visits to help with Bridger and being questioned about a device from his criminal days that may have been used in the theft. Also, since this is the first book in a four-book series, much of the novel lays out the complex setting and nothing is really answered or resolved. The combination of a complicated background and plot along with frequent use of philosophy/theology plus the quirks of the 18th century narration (and the fact that many characters are referred to by different names by different groups) may put off some readers who find this too much work. The book badly needs a list of characters and their names and hives.
Readers who love complexity in their fiction, who want to be immersed in a well-designed world will find Too Like the Lightning well worth the challenge. The narrative voice here is different from any other science fiction set in the future.
This novel is not suitable for a reader who wants action/adventure or light entertainment. But readers who want a future that feels very different from the present and who enjoy a good puzzle will enjoy reading and re-reading this. If the other books are as good as this one, Terra Ignota could end up one of the truly great works of speculative literature.