Too Like the Lightning

by Ada Palmer


Much less than I'd hoped for, given the hype.

As futuristic worldbuilding, pretty good -- Palmer tackles the breakdown of nations about as well as Robinson did, and articulates something interesting in her bash-houses, however irritating their orthography was. I don't really buy that a system suggested on such weak grounds as presented in the retrospective narrative would actually take off, but it's a permissible handwave to get the setting going. The cars and the death of place were a decent premise, and the sometimes bizarre future history that sees Masonic lodges and the Olympic Games organising committee as major political powers was quite amusing.

As writing, annoying. I detest authors that feel the need to write their own analysis into the text, and at least Mycroft and less charitably Palmer are constantly doing that. I don't enjoy barely-veiled asides about why you are using a particular word, patronising explanations of references, or, especially, imaginary dialogues with the reader in which views very certainly not my own are put into 'my' mouth. If this led to something -- a stoked fire of narration rising into a blast through the fourth-wall that reached some climax -- then I might forgive, but it doesn't and I don't. The protagonist's inability to consistently assign genders to people was another part of this parcel, but the actual point of this defect eludes me. In combination with other elements of the setting, I am left with the impression that the author is arguing that attempts to ignore people's sex are pointless and doomed (but they are doing this in the midst of a fictional society that seems to mostly manage this, so what gives?).

As plot, this was too busy and incomplete for my taste. The protagonist is yanked from encounter to encounter with hardly a moment of agency. The world is terrifyingly small -- almost everyone they meet already knows them intimately, including all the world leaders, who hang out at the same brothel. Sometimes this leads to puzzling moments, like when you reflect on Mycroft's interrogation by Danae and Mitsubishi in the early chapter, with what you know of their intimacy from the later ones -- it doesn't make sense, the whole scene reads like he doesn't know them, yet we later learn he is witness to their most private secrets. I worry that the author didn't know that he knew them when she wrote this scene, the whole assortment of twists spilling out from a game of 'what could happen next' that will not in the end be satisfying.

We are meant to be curious, at the end. What will happen to Bridger? How will Saladin confront Dominic? Who planted the list? Why did Mycroft murder his adoptive family? But I grow too jaded. My patience is low for series where the first volume only opens questions, where nothing (much) is resolved. I don't feel affection for a plot where everyone significant lives in each other's lives, so similar that they even keep the same secrets. There's a lie being told here, the lie that you can understand the movements of the world by understanding the mechanics of your social group, the overlapping personal drama being more salient than the economics. I don't buy it, I'm not interested, I'm stopping here.