The Will to Battle (Tor, December 2017), the third volume in Ada Palmer’s complex and strange Terra Ignota series, is a murderously difficult book to review. Third books in a series generally are (a review can only speak to readers of the previous two volumes, and spoil those books for everyone else), but that goes double for this one, because, as I said, of how complex and strange the Terra Ignota series has been from the jump.
That series, which began in 2016 with Too Like the Lightning (which I review here) and continued last year with Seven Surrenders, introduced us to a 25th-century world organized into seven hives rather than nation-states, a world that professed itself a utopia but had long-repressed tensions running hot under the surface. A world where public discussion of religion is forbidden but bore witness to the miraculous child Bridger as well as the singular being J. E. D. D. Mason, a child of many parents who believes himself to be a god from another universe, the cynosure of a secret cult—and, at the end of Seven Surrenders, the beneficiary of a resurrection at the hands of the aforementioned Bridger after an assassination attempt aimed at preventing him from taking power.
Whew. And that doesn’t even begin to describe what has gone on in the first two books—the conspiracies, the intertwined and conflicting behind-the-scenes relationships, all of which witnessed by the protagonist and narrator, the reviled and notorious murderer Mycroft Canner, sentenced to be a Servicer for his crimes, who nonetheless interacted closely with the leaders and authority figures of the respective Hives: the emperor of the Masons, the president of Europe, the CEO of Mitsubishi—all of whom, it was revealed, have a personal connection to J. E. D. D. Mason.
Too Like the Lightning, written like it came from the pen of an 18th-century philosophe, set up the mysteries; Seven Surrenders revealed them, which was something of a disappointment, in the way that sequels that give answers and explain secrets inevitably do, and took the Terra Ignota series in a somewhat different direction than might be expected from a read of the first volume. Expecting Voltaire, we got something closer to Barbara Tuchman. The utopia found itself, for the first time in centuries, on the brink of war.
What, then, remains for The Will to Battle? It deals with the fallout of the previous volume, of which there is a great deal. It takes us from the brink of war to … the brink of war: which is to say that in The Will to Battle the leaders of the seven hives try to deal with the immediate aftermath of Seven Surrenders—including, again, the resurrection of a person who believes himself to be a god in front of multiple witnesses, in a world that represses religion—do their best to reorganize themselves in the face of mass protest, avoid war if possible, and prepare for war if necessary. Another of Bridger’s resurrections, Achilles—yes, that Achilles—appears to teach a world that has forgotten war how to fight. Or why: the world must learn causes, and sides: on one, J. E. D. D. Mason, and his promise to remake the world; on the other, his erstwhile assassin, Sniper, and their promise to defend it, flaws intact. (I’m oversimplifying; the book is complicated.)
Like Voltaire in an earlier volume, Hobbes is frequently cited, and appears as one of Mycroft’s interlocutors (in this book Mycroft’s narrative is increasingly feverish and contradictory; the text is foregrounded as it becomes clear he’s writing the previous two books during the events of the third). We are on the verge of the war of all against all.
But the writer that came to mind when I was reading this book was not Hobbes (whom I’ve read, and written a paper on), but, if you can believe it, Asimov. Because this a talky book. Much of it is predicated on the trial of the head of an assassination plot that was revealed in Seven Surrenders: we learn that “terra ignota” is a legal term. Add to which the political, philosophical and theological jockeying between the various players, and you get rather a lot of the “permutations and reversals of ideas” Asimov employed in his Foundation stories. Only Ada Palmer is working on a different level: the ideas more sophisticated, the characters more round, the worldbuilding more intricate. The prose is a good deal less pellucid and a good deal more arch, and that’s both a bug and a feature.
Also, Marissa’s critique that the book focuses on “the nosebleed levels of elite,” where everyone knows everyone else or is at most one degree of separation from each other, certainly applies. It’s one limitation of using the philosophes of the ancien régime as a template for future history: this is a drama that could have taken place in the gardens of Versailles; there’d be more than enough room.
I received an electronic review copy of this book via NetGalley.