30 May 2017

Hugos 2017: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Trade paperback, 448 pages
Published 2017 (originally 2016)

Acquired and read May 2017
Terra Ignota, Book I: Too Like the Lightning
by Ada Palmer

I feel like it's been a long time since I was reading a book so much for the world in which it took place-- maybe Hyperion? Ada Palmer is a professor of history, and has spun a fascinating world, a future where the speed of travel means that nation-states based on geography became meaningless, religious wars led to the outlawing of organized religion, and public performance of gender has become taboo. Every couple chapters brings a new and interesting insight, and Palmer works in her exposition by having her narrator address the audience he imagines will read the book five hundred years hence, who might not know all the details of his time, allowing those of us four hundred years behind him some needed clarifications as well.

The book has a dizzying array of characters and a complicated plot, which sometimes made it hard going to me. Even once I got to the end, I wasn't really sure what the focus of the book was supposed to have been: the last chapter drops in some pretty dramatic revelations, but they feel immensely distant to what the rest of the book has been about, even though it was about many things (a kid with miraculous powers, a break-in with unclear motivation, a global power grab). And I found the narrator a little hard to get hold of. I know this is deliberate, and details are slowly dolled out about him, but I still don't know what motivates him. He seems to do a lot of different things, but what does he want to do, and what does he think about what he does do? I know less than I feel I ought to after 400-plus pages.

That said, these feel like quibbles because I really did enjoy the experience of reading it so much. Palmer is imaginative, and her ideas compelling; this world feels both plausible and alien, and given that history is plausible and alien, this seems exactly right. I particularly liked the characters of Carlyle Foster and the Major; I hope we see more of them in the book II that is necessary to finish off the story of this one.

This is the first of the finalists for the Hugo Award for Best Novel I've read; I'll be curious to see how the others stack up to this one. There are ways in which it will be hard to beat!

Next Week: The beginning of a cross-time saga in The Three-Body Problem!

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