Ada Palmer – The Will To Battle (2017) Review

How did the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand lead to the cataclysm of the First World War? Fat history books have been written to explain the lead up to the war, explaining about all the various nations and individuals. The Will To Battle is the science fiction equivalent in Palmer’s future history. There are so many factions and powerful individuals in this series and Palmer made future society so strange, so other, that this makes for a fascinating story of increasing tensions. This is various versions of utopia consciously choosing to enter a world war.

The Franz Ferdinand of this story, the wonderfully strange J.E.D.D. Mason, is simultaneously a messiah figure who went through death and resurrection, that last thing being a gift by or a message from the God of This Universe. What the intentions are for humankind remains unclear – perhaps humanity is part of the message – but God’s messenger has also undergone a transformation to a famous historical and mythical figure to teach humanity again how to fight and solve war. Of course, Mycroft the errant boy is at his side to accompany him to all the world leaders. Mycroft’s first message to us is that humanity’s survival is anything but certain.

Right from the start, I am completely enthralled by the heavy drama that is so theatrically written down by Mycroft the narrator, and by the deep intelligence that peeks through the text. Palmer suffuses her writing with ideas from enlightenment era philosophers and classical references, which some might find pretentious, but I think it gives the story and narration a delicious gravitas. She’s intelligent enough to tackle all the subtleties of politics and philosophy, to the point that these novels could only be written by someone who has made it a serious study in their life.

While those qualities are constantly present in the writing, The Will To Battle is a novel that asks for some more patience from the readers. The war between the Hyves, with which we have been teased with from the very first novel, is still not breaking out and instead Palmer adds more layers of worldbuilding during the slow build-up of tension. She dives into the political and legalistic consequences of everything that happened in Seven Surrenders.

Looking at the title and topic of this third novel, The Will to Battle, refers to a quote by Thomas Hobbes that Palmer puts front and centre in the opening pages, and in the quote, Hobbes explains that before war breaks out, there is a stretch of time in which “the Will to contend by Battle is sufficiently known” among the parties, and this, like the weather, is part of Nature and War has in fact already begun. My point here is this: the novel really explores that specific idea. And which fantasy or science fiction book has ever taken up this idea, enunciated it clearly, and occupied that narrow, tension-filled timeframe with such precision? Sure, many series treat us with the outbreak of war, but Palmer’s knowledge of philosophy gives it all a clearer focus and makes for a more unique novel that stands out over the crowd for being so self-aware, so knowledgable in what it is doing. So what if it doesn’t move so fast?

While the politics are a bit tough to get through, the plot is impressively intricate. The series has a large cast of very distinctive characters and Mycroft is dragged from one situation to the next so that all these people have their moments in the spotlight. The story is like a shawl of intertwining threads, which are all the motivations and actions of this diverse group of people and, impressively, Palmer keeps it all clear and consistent.

Meanwhile, Mycroft’s narration nearly goes overboard in its whimsy. Mycroft imagines himself to be in conversation with us, the reader, and an imagined Thomas Hobbes, who is a philosopher who had things to say about war. They all comment on the telling of the story in numerous asides, while Mycroft tries his hand at some Homeric writing. The Will To Prattle, more like.

But I am really not interested in expressing any more second-hand embarrassment for this series’ addictive oddness and narrative indulgences. I want to raise it up on a pedestal instead.

For me, the central conflict of this series is one of cynicism and nihilism (personified by Madame Faust, Thisbe Saneer and others) versus genuine love and concern for humanity, its accomplishments and dreams, and the people who choose to sacrifice for these dreams. The main players are honest and deep feeling in their motivations to the point of theatricality. But among those players lives the difficult question of whether you would destroy this world, to create a better one. There is just something so bright-eyed and refreshing about it, and the whole series is so deeply considered and skillfully written.


<– preceded by Seven Surrenders — followed by Perhaps the Stars –>

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3 Responses to Ada Palmer – The Will To Battle (2017) Review

  1. Pingback: TOP 100 SCI-FI BOOKS | A Sky of Books and Movies

  2. Pingback: Ada Palmer – Seven Surrenders (2017) Review | A Sky of Books and Movies

  3. Pingback: Ada Palmer – Perhaps the Stars (2021) review | A Sky of Books and Movies

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