REVIEW: Too Like Lightning

Too Like Lightning by Ada Palmer

This book may be brilliant. It certainly is weird. It’s 18th century literature set in the 2246. There may be a revolution coming. There may not be. We never find out, and it could be so esoteric it might not even matter. Thus is this book.

I’m not sure I’ll even know what to think of this book even now that I’ve finished it. I’m a huge fan of China Mieville’s work, so I’m well attuned to reading the New Weird and speculative fiction. However, there’s something less accessible about the characters in this story than in any of Mieville’s works. The best author comparison is probably to Stephen Baxter, who works well with ideas and high-concept worlds but not with character (or at least, not as well).

Sometimes the real world is sad, so books are sad. This might be the thesis to this story. It’s a line Servicer (criminal/slave) Mycroft tells Bridger (pseudo-God/wonder-child) when they’re discussing French literature. For a book set in the far future, the themes are firmly planted in Revolutionary (pre-Revolutionary) France. There’s the noble figures (a literal Louis XVI) and clergy figures (a literal person named Jehovah). There are brothels and even a scene with a French chef. I don’t think I’ve read a book this obsessed with that time period that’s not set in that time period. In that way, it becomes speculative political science fiction, drawing on ideas of the past and twisting them into a strange, new future.

Be prepared for a slow, dense read. Not a bad thing, but there’s no real rhythm to this book or none that I could hold onto. This might be one of its charms, but it is a challenge. Some of you will hate that. Some of you will love that. This is definitely a book for the sci-fi minded, ‘big ideas’ crowd. Maybe this is where I confess that I need to attach to the characters in a story a bit more than I did in this one. Mieville walks that sweet line between amazing ideas and relate-able characters, and Palmer fall a tiny bit short in the character department. There are some amazing character moments sprinkled throughout the story, but you never know when you’re going to get them and they’re brief and fleeting. The best scene is arguably when we discover Mycroft’s crime, and my second favorite scene was when Thisbe and Carlyle go and investigate JEDD Mason.

This book is obsessed with religion. There’s no religion, but that’s all that gets talked about is religion. And cults. So many cults. The sensayers have a particular role to play in the story, and they’re new age priests (kind of) that are assigned to talk about religious issues with people (talking about religion is regulated). There’s more discussion about religion and the nature of godhood in this book than any other, and while we don’t find out exactly what Mycroft’s particular cult belief was (or if we do, I missed it), there’s a clear implication that his crimes were religiously motivated. I mean, in a book with a literal god figure (Bridger can create life from inanimate objects) and another person named Jehovah and several people that are priests…well, religion discussion may be taboo in the future, but it’s alive and well in this story. The set-sets are arguably the most secular figures in the story (their bodies have been hooked up to wires, allowing them to become living computers), and a point of controversy throughout because the religious will always push back against the secular.

Notes:

  • Nina, Pinta, and Apollo XI….
  • Haven’t read a book that wants to defy a rating this hard in a long time.
  • Important pieces of information kind of just ‘pop up’ in this story. Once again, there’s a distinct lack of rhythm that makes this story hard to read.
  • I give up on notes. There’s too much. There’s SO MUCH.

Rating: 4 stars

The genius of this book is evident, even if you don’t like it. The real disappointment is that there’s not a real ending to this story (that’s dualogies for you).

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