Book Review: Too Like the Lightning
As I said in my previous review, I've gone on a Hugo nominee kick. I picked up Too Like the Lightning even though I otherwise probably wouldn't (based on the description). And...well, we'll get to that in a minute.
Set about a thousand years in the future, Too Like the Lightning is narrated by Mycroft Canner, a criminal who now serves everyone on Earth as his sentence. Mycroft is drawn into investigating a conspiracy to upset the balance of power on Earth, currently tenuously split between seven "hives." Meanwhile, he also tries to protect a young boy named Bridger from Earth's powerful, because Bridger has the remarkable ability to animate objects. And honestly, that's about all I can say without getting ridiculously complicated.
I have some issues with this book, and it really bugs me because I wanted to like it. I really did. Instead, I find myself hovering on the line between like and dislike.
I guess we'll start with what I did enjoy. The world is wonderfully imagined. Palmer picks a key technology - the invention of cars which can easily travel the world in a few hours - and extrapolates from there what that might do to society. The result is a decentralized world, where your nation is what you choose instead of where you're born. True countries are gone, replaced by seven Hives and their various nation-strats.
Palmer also puts an interesting spin on religion. At some point, religion devolved into the Church Wars, and humanity decided it had had enough of religious conflicts. As a result, discussion of theology is banned except with sensayers, sort-of priests who are trained in every religion that has existed and help people explore their personal sense of the divine. I'm a huge fan of this as a concept, because I've long viewed religion as something that should be more personal than institutional.
There's also a lot to enjoy about the plot. I like politically inclined plots, and though the jacket copy advertises this as focusing on Bridger's ability to create life, the plot really isn't about Bridger at all. It's about these power ranking lists, one of which gets stolen, and unearthing this conspiracy to protect and/or derail the Hive governments. As our narrator bounces between different Hive leaders, we get a fascinating sense of the world politics and the dangers of upsetting the balances between them.
Where it all starts to fall down for me is in the style of the writing. Palmer is a historian, and she's clearly drawing on her extensive knowledge of the Enlightenment period. Mycroft, the narrator, writes in a deliberately archaic format and routinely breaks the fourth wall to directly address the reader. I'll be blunt: it annoyed me to no end. The heavy style makes the story needlessly dense and difficult to parse. I understand the choice given certain elements of the plot, but having to decipher the style took a lot of enjoyment out of the book for me. Important moments didn't land as well because I had to spend time figuring out what was happening / translating the writing instead of just imagining the scene.
To cap it off, Palmer establishes at the beginning that the world now uses genderless pronouns - and then proceeds to let Mycroft designate whatever pronoun he wants for each character. Look, everyone should use whatever pronouns they want, but let's be consistent, OK? PLEASE don't change mid-scene. Again, it yanks me out of the story because I have to translate the writing instead of going straight to imagining the scene. And when I find out mid-scene that a character you've been using "he/him" for has breasts, I've got to revise my entire mental picture of the scene. It drove me absolutely bonkers.
This is further exacerbated by the misleading jacket copy, alluded to above. This is likely not Palmer's fault, so I'll just say that the publisher is not being straight with you. The jacket cover paints Carlyle like the second main character of the book, with agency and actions of his own; he is not. Mycroft is the main character, and everyone else pales in comparison. Likewise, Carlyle never really does anything of his own accord. He's either being ordered by his superiors or following Mycroft/Thisbe's lead. So positioning him as a second MC is hugely misleading.
Ditto the Bridger plotline. It may become more relevant in the sequel, but Bridger's influence on the plot is negligible. It's true that Mycroft is concerned about keeping him safe, but I'd reckon that Bridger is in / impacts 30% of the plot at most - maybe worth a jacket copy mention, but certainly not the leading plot point.
Finally, we come to the characters themselves, the last of my major issues with the book. None of them are really likable. Mycroft is the king of unreliable narrators, and it's unclear whether he's truly repented his crime or his sociopathy has just deepened. Either way, he's not particularly endearing. And the same can be said of most of the book's characters. Thisbe and Carlyle spend most of the book sticking their noses where they don't belong. The assortment of world leaders are by turns arrogant, self-righteous and incestuous. The only character I can really say I liked is Sniper, and Sniper's not in it much. (Maybe Martin Guildbreaker too, but again - not in it much.)
But here's the catch - I really loved the ending. The last chapter was a shocker, with big implications and no resolution. It did make me want to know how everything turns out in the next book, but I'm not sure I can make the slog through the dense, confusing prose and unlikable characters to find out. Anybody who's read Seven Surrenders - help?