Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota #1)

Too Like the Lightning: 1 (Terra Ignota): Amazon.co.uk: Palmer, Ada:  9781786699503: Books

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I’m not sure where to even start with this book – I’m not sure a review can do it justice. I picked it up because I heard about the 18th century references and it turned out to be one of the craziest, best, wildest, most cursed rides involving a lot of quite uncharacteristic incoherent screaming. It has to be experienced to be believed. As hard as it was to tell from my commentary while I was reading it, I think I might have a new favourite series. Definitely not for everyone, but very up multiple of my niche alleys.

I struggle to open history’s inner doors to you, to teach you how those who made this new era think and feel. In my age we have come anew to see history as driven not by DNA and economics, but by man. And woman. And so must you.

Mycroft Canner is a convict, sentenced to doing public service work to atone for the terrible crime he comitted and is also secretly helping to take care of a child named Bridger who seems to possess reality-altering powers. And this is as much as I can say without spoilers. And even if I tried to tell you, it would make no sense. Really, it’s best if you head into this book knowing as little about the plot as possible, just strap yourself in for the wild ride and go.

Will you know what’s going on? No, you will not. Mycroft’s narration is paradoxical in that he infodumps a lot and yet in a lot of ways says very little, since the main assumption is that while the reader may not know all the players, they already know how it all ends. Ever since The Gray House, I have been intrigued by unreliable narrators who don’t necessarily lie to the reader, so that was definitely a point in its favour. Besides, I have always loved “I will tell you what really happened” as a framing device. I knew going in that he was going to trick me, but I wanted so bad to see how and I was not disappointed. There are a lot of twists and every single one of them feels fully earned – the ending in particular floored me. A perfect hook for the next book without being a cliffhanger.

“Anger doesn’t help. Men write books like that because they want history to remember, mourn, and make sure that sort of tragedy won’t happen again.” His voice was gentle, like an abdicated king happy that his words are words again and not commands. “Most of the characters in that story were willing to die for what they believed in. It’s a good bet that, given the choice, they’d be willing to suffer what they suffered in the book if it would insure that you in the real world don’t make the same mistakes.”

Another thing to note about the narration is that it’s written in a style imitating the one of the 18th century, very descriptive, somewhat flowery, often tell over show, and the fourth wall is nonexistent. But despite breaking every single modern narrative rule, it somehow worked for meand grabbed me immediately, even if I can all too easily see how it would annoy someone else.

And since I mentioned the 18th century – yes, there’s a lot of references as well, perhaps a little overexplained, but often in the most cursed possible places that left me reeling as if I have been hit in the head with a brick. If you know about Voltaire, it will be bad enough. Sadly there were none of the more obscure references I hoped for (thinking mostly of a certain set of altered, semi-novelised letters), but regardless. And if you know about Marquis de Sade, it will be worse. Much worse. Copious swearing ensued. In a way, I am very glad I didn’t read the book in 2018 when I got the ebook and only did it now, after several months of obsession with the 18th century. Have a spoiler-free example:

To temper your confusion, reader, I shall not call Rousseau “she,” but I am tempted.

The worldbuilding is also some of the most intriguing and unique I’ve ever seen. Since it takes place on far-future Earth, the political situation and the culture are completely different – everyone being referred to as “they” (except by Mycroft as narrator, who uses “he” or “she” but based on his own logic) and gender being seen as something intimate/sexual being the most prominent example. Since I love well-done cultural worldbuilding, this is yet another point in its favour.

Man is more ambitious than patient. When we realize we cannot split a true atom, cannot conquer the whole Earth, we redefine the terms to fake our victory, check off our boxes, and pretend the deed is done.

And then the themes and the characters. The exploration of flaws in what sounds like a near-utopian society on paper is probably the main focus and incredibly well done. Because of Mycroft’s situation, we also get a huge focus on whether people who have committed terrible crimes can…not atone or redeem themselves, exactly, but perhaps be rehabilitated. Whether he’s likable or not is immaterial to me – he’s interesting, and that suffices. The other characters are no less fascinating or eccentric and I can’t wait to spend more time with them.

In short, onwards to the next book!

Enjoyment: 5/5
Execution: 5/5

Recommended to: fellow fans of weird books, anyone looking for something with a lot of twists, 18th century enthusiasts (though, like me, you might be disappointed if you expect any obscure references), those who like interesting cultural worldbuilding
Not recommended to: those who don’t like a heavy-handed narrative style, fourth wall breaking, or the narrator winking at and toying with the reader

Content warnings: rape, descriptions of extreme violence

2 thoughts on “Review: Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer (Terra Ignota #1)”

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