Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer is 432-page speculative fiction novel, published by Tor in May of 2016. I received the book from NetGalley for review.

Too Like the LightningI requested this novel from NetGalley because I loved the cover and the title font. So yes, I judge books by their covers. Luckily, I wasn’t burned–Too Like the Lightning turned out to be a slow-burning, thought-provoking story.

The beginning of the novel crawls a bit since the narrator, Mycroft Canner, is actually a historian from 2454 who sets up the reader for a history that takes place in the reader’s past (see the first line of the book below). It took a few chapters to get used to Mycroft’s manner of speaking and story telling–there are plenty of “thee”s and “thou”s in the book, thanks to the future’s use of language (they’re also partial to using Latin). The payoff for this slow build is absolutely worth it.

Ada Palmer’s worldbuilding is ridiculously thorough. Background information is disbursed so well throughout Mycroft’s narrative that when a character first twists the norms, I was surprised to feel utterly shocked. I applaud Palmer’s ability to create a set of cultural norms so ingrained in the plot that I would feel affronted when those norms are bent or broken. The world is organized into Hives, which evolved from a desire to end territorial disputes. These Hives replace nations and encourage people, once they reach adulthood, to join a community that aligns with their personal beliefs and interests. Similarly, the “nuclear family” ideal has been destroyed–people now choose their own adopted family of sorts by joining or creating a bash’ of like-minded people.

Through Mycroft, the reader becomes acquainted with the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’. This prestigious bash’, which directs nearly all automobile traffic in the world, has its own juicy secrets scattered throughout the story. Mycroft himself seemed a bit humdrum at first, but through staggered revelations (like an early reveal that he is a servicer–someone who “works” for all humanity as a sentence for committed crimes), he quickly became one of the most interesting characters.

Though the characters are many and all are fascinating, the strength of this novel truly lies in the slow, massive buildup of politics, culture, and ideologies that are shattered by the end of the novel. Too Like the Lightning is a genre bender (sci-fi? Spec fic? History? Mystery? Thriller? Philosophy? Yes.) that covers a ton of ground  in just over 400 pages. This book is so large in scope that to summarize it would be to almost miss the point. Mycroft’s asides to the reader regarding the background of events and their ramifications may slow down the plot, but they were definitely necessary to explain the political and cultural complexity of Palmer’s world.

It’s been quite a while since I wanted to reread a book immediately after finishing it–Too Like the Lightning definitely demands a reread, which I’m sure will reveal even more depth to the world that I didn’t catch on the first go around. This book was something I wasn’t aware was missing from sci-fi, but it’s opened my eyes. I hope it will encourage others to explore the “future-historical-science-fiction” genre, because that is something I would love to read more of.

TITLE: Too Like the Lightning
AUTHOR: Ada Palmer
PAGES: 432
ALSO WROTE: Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance
FIRST LINE: You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described.
FAVORITE LINE: You can make a sculpture of a tree out of metal, or glass, or wood, but using wood doesn’t make your sculpture a tree, it makes it a tree-shaped artificial object made out of the hacked-up pieces of a dead tree.

BONUS LINE: I am the window through which you watch the coming storm. He is the lightning.

Ancillary Justice (Imperial Radch, #1) Elantris (Elantris, #1)


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