At the final Farthing Party in the fall of 2013, Tor managing editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden read the opening from a book, the first of a four-part series, that he had just acquired. We the assembled multitudes were impressed, because it sounded fantastic, and also a bit annoyed, because we knew we’d have to wait some time before the book came out, and we wanted it now.
Our wait is now almost — finally — over, because that book, Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning, comes out in two weeks from Tor Books. I have read it, and I have thoughts.
We don’t talk enough about authorial voice in our field. New and emerging authors are under certain pressures to conform: to achieve publishability, to get it right. It’s a process that risks filing off all the interesting bumps and edges found in an author’s writing and results in a certain sameness of tone and theme. Clarion grads with English degrees workshop the distinctiveness out of one another. One libertarian space jockey sounds more or less like any other. Epic fantasies blur together. In other words: they play it safe.
So it’s awfully exciting when an author comes along who sounds so thoroughly unlike anyone else. It’s as though she’s coming from another planet. Or, in Palmer’s case, the history department of the University of Chicago; she’s an intellectual historian of early modern Europe, which no doubt influenced her choice of style. The opening paragraph, which Patrick read back in October 2013:
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. You must forgive me my ‘thee’s and ‘thou’s and ‘he’s and ‘she’s, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.
This is the memoir of Palmer’s protagonist, Mycroft Canner, who despite his anachronistic writing style is writing to a future living in a world shaped by the monumental changes that he is about to recount. His tale is strongly narrated, addressing (and even arguing with) the imagined reader; when the POV shifts, it’s with the conceit that the other narrator is relating the events for inclusion in Canner’s chronicle.
The juxtaposition of future and past is jarring but it works: it emphasizes a future that is alien and different, a future further away from us than we are from the eighteenth century, but with affectations, quirks and anachronistic social customs that feel appropriate and ring true.
Canner is a servicer, a criminal sentenced to perform tasks for anyone who demands them of him, though the full horror of the crime he committed emerges only slowly — Palmer believes in incluing, but there are are infodumps too, as you’d expect in a narrative informed by eighteenth-century style. Canner’s world is a future utopia, of sorts, where religion is fairly outlawed (priests have been replaced by “sensayers”), families have been reconceptualized into extended bash’es, and nation-states replaced by seven Hives that transcend territory and ancestry, whose leaders are fairly interconnected and incestuous — a fair parallel to the aristocracy of early modern Europe.
Into that mix add some deeply strange wild cards in the persons of Bridger, a small child seemingly capable of miracles who Canner has pledged to hide from the outside world, and J.E.D.D. Mason, an enigmatic son of an emperor who may be the cynosure of a religious cult. This is a future with flying cars, but the narrative focuses on the cultural, philosophical and political axes: the world is at a tipping point, on the verge of a spiritual crisis while the political system teeters. It’s an ostensible utopia paid for in coin that is sometimes terrible and secret.
Maddeningly, it’s at the point where we begin to understand that cost that the book comes to an abrupt end. I do so hate it when a story can’t be told between one set of covers, but the story and world and cast of characters are simply too large. (Now I have some idea of what readers must have felt when they finished Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer, knowing that three books were still to come.) We’ll have to wait until December, when the second volume, Seven Surrenders comes out, for the rest of Canner’s narrative; then we’ll know if Palmer has stuck the landing. (At this point I don’t know what books three and four of her series, Terra Ignota, will be about.)
But as for what we have right now, Too Like the Lightning is, for a first novel, a work of startling virtuosity: Ada Palmer has emerged, like Pallas Athene, full-grown and fully armed. One cannot help but be in awe.
Read chapters one and two, three, and four at Tor.com.
I received an electronic review copy from the publisher via NetGalley.