Is it not miraculous, reader, the power of the mind to believe and not believe at once?
I can’t think of another book that left me with as much emotional conflict as Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning. I have struggled to write this review because, in essence, I didn’t know how to recommend a book I had such a hard time liking. And I did, in the end, come to like and respect it.
Since neither you nor I can tell whether you’re part of Too Like‘s rare audience, perhaps I can describe some of what I loved and some of where she lost me, and empower you, Reader, to choose your own path.
In Too Like the Lightning, Palmer’s style swings like a pendulum from clumsy and distracting to beautifully poetic, spending little time in between. To be fair, her narrator does open the story by apologizing for choosing an antiquated manner of speaking and begs the reader forgive him. What I didn’t truly understand until later in the book is that Palmer truly IS echoing a narrative voice from the Enlightenment. The narrator’s habit of interacting with the reader comes straight from Diderot’s Jacques the Fatalist, and once I knew the intent I could see how well this was executed. In those early pages before I knew, his jarring voice almost caused me to leave the book behind more than once. In truth its interruptions are sparse and dwindle as the story progresses – if his phrasing is what turns you off this book, I urge you to give it another try.
Almost immediately, and then again and again through this book and its sequel, Palmer pulls off one of the most complicated of authorial magic tricks. So much of this story turns on events that mean nothing to us IRL but carry great weight in the context of the book’s universe. Palmer’s magic is that she gives the reader that cultural context to understand the importance of those things through the regular progression of the narrative. (Check out that same Fantasy-Faction interview to hear Palmer talk about approaching this particular concern, but be wary of spoilers for this and the sequel Seven Surrenders.) For this skill alone I would happily have handed Palmer her Campbell Award myself.
I’m a sucker for what people so often complain about in books – pages and pages of scientific or philosophical explanation. I recognize that that’s not for everyone, though, and I guess so does Palmer because she provides the best of both worlds in Too Like. Through the narrator, Palmer gives us an incredible depth and breadth of history, of philosophy, of social science, and more in a way that is engaging as much as it is inspiring. Where an audience might have called Seveneves too dry, or Foundation plodding, or Red Mars too technical, what audience can call the drama and salacious gossip that smuggles in Too Like‘s higher philosophy boring?
In Too Like the Lightning, Palmer shows us a world that has apparently moved beyond gender – to the point where the use of gendered pronouns is taboo. Palmer’s narrator uses these pronouns intentionally for the Reader, and through his use of them Palmer subtly addresses some deep and complex gender-related social issues without getting (for lack of a better word) preachy. I found much of the way Palmer played with gender to border on the uncomfortable, and while I recognize and respect what she’s going for and how she clearly achieved at least some of those goals, I love Too Like in spite of this technique.
More than anything, Palmer created a unique, fascinating, rich, and completely human world for her Terra Ignota series, and introduces readers to it flawlessly. She draws an incredible balance between giving readers what information they need to understand the story, and reserving information in order create powerful, moving, illuminating narrative reveals, and providing readers a truly and unashamedly unreliable narrator. For me, this eclipsed everything else. Her story is wonderful, her characters are rich, her chosen voice sometimes lost me. Her universe? Her universe is everything.