Also in this series:
Seven Surrenders. Not so much the sequel to Too Like the Lightning (2016) but the second half of it. Some writers really know how to start a story and expertly lead the reader into their world of wonders, but then fumble in writing a conclusion. Well, Ada Palmer seems the opposite of that. Too Light the Lightning was a rather lengthy, confusing introduction to her strange future world (and at the start of Seven Surrenders I still had this feeling of alienation, of not having a clear grasp of the politics and loyalties of the characters), but now we truly enter the meat of the story. We are done with the build-up and Seven Surrenders is one big pay-off.
And my first reaction is that, wow, this is good. But it has to fit your tastes, so if your tastes run to soft sociological science fiction, complex political machinations between odd, genetically engineered figureheads of state and deep discussions on philosophy and religion, then you’re good. If this novel doesn’t finally get you into Palmer’s mindset and rhythm of storytelling, the whole series probably won’t work for you.
My earlier review of Too Like the Lightning introduces some of the world-building and to quickly recap, this is a future in which both atheism and feminism have won cultural wars, and expressions of both gender and religion are gone from the public eye. Paradoxically, this made everyone extremely sensitive to such expressions and also cognitively unaware of how to defend against such forces, and sex and religion are now wielded as weapons in struggles for power.
That was only half of the story, as Too Like the Lightning was only half of the novel. Palmer introduces a religious conundrum that will shape the future of this world. We already met the boy Bridger, who performs miracles, and is – at last – direct evidence that God has injected a direct interference into the universe, with unknown intentions. Then there is a second boy, approximately ten years older, named J.E.D.D. Mason, who is also seemingly the embodiment of (a) God. He is the counsellor of all the world leaders and maintains stability, and the existence of Bridger may be a reaction of God against the existence of Mason. It seems to be an argument between Peer Gods about direct benevolence and the existence of evil, with humanity stuck in the middle.
One of the best “scenes” in the novel concern a confrontation between two Sensayers (house-call practitioners for your spiritual and religious needs), the meek Carlyle and the monstrous, violent Dominic. The whole scene is presented as Carlyle being in severe danger of torture, and our narrator Mycroft is rushing to save Carlyle. But all that Dominic does is talk. He completely demolishes Carlyle’s belief system because of the implications of the existence of the boy Bridger, while Carlyle vomits and cries his eyes out as his world is turned upside down.
Most of the novel consists of conversations, and many individual chapters would qualify for the imaginary award of Most Extraordinary Conversation in a Novel.
You’ve got to be a sharp thinker and have the guts and ambition to present such scenes in an admirable, believable way. Make it sound profound instead of cringey; and Palmer pulls it off. The discussions also sound more heartfelt. As the drama intensifies, all the characters’ intentions and loyalties become clearer, and it’s easier to feel for them. Bridger, for example, seems acutely aware of his own powers and can put in words his struggles with responsibility, and suddenly I feel what an unusual, extraordinary character he is. The same goes for everyone else and their strange places in life.
This is very much a story of ideas – science fiction’s greatest strength. When conspiracies come to light, both Mason and Bridger find themselves confronted by the age-old dilemmas of sacrifices for the greater good, and of the existence of evil when people still act out of an end-justifies-the-means philosophy. Mycroft, the narrator, is still an enigma and his ultimate loyalties are unclear. There are no real good or bad sides in this struggle. Besides a couple of characters who are clearly sociopaths, all the events in this story can be seen from multiple perspectives. And each perspective says something different about Fate or the intentions of one God or another. The entire novel’s existence seems to be to raise difficult questions about this.
Like Herbert’s Dune series and Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, I can see this series being discussed for decades to come. Unlike those series, Palmer’s is not set that far into the future that anything could happen. She draws lines from today’s developments to her future and some of it struck me as a bit ridiculous. I can’t see the complete disappearance of gender and religion happen. I can’t see how the political powers will have their bases in Europe, while the other continents and their philosophies play little role. Palmer is, however, determined to be part of what she calls the Great Conversation in which SF is part of an ongoing human exploration of our own potential, so her series will draw strong opinions.
Even if all that rubs you the wrong way, the sheer power of this story’s melodramatic theatricality makes for an amazing read.