Too Like the Lightning
By Ada Palmer
Published 10/5/2016 (Tor Books)
I didn’t really know what to make of this book at first. I saw this book everywhere last year, with a lot of people raving about it. I put it on my ‘to read’ list, but was a bit reluctant to read it. Nothing I’d heard about the story really grabbed me. Then when Too Like the Lightning got nominated for a Hugo, I found out that it wasn’t available on the kindle store on Amazon’s Australian site, so I ended up getting it as an audio book. I was a bit doubtful going into this story, but I have to say that I’m glad I finally read it. Too Like the Lightning is an intelligent, cool, and unique book, and I am now firmly committed to continuing the series.
Too Like the Lightning is a hard story to describe. It is listed as political science-fiction, but it doesn’t really fit into any mold I have come across. It is a story told by notorious criminal Mycroft Cannar about the seven days during which a long era of peace and stability came to an end. Mycroft chooses to tell this story in the style of an 18th Century memoir, and often breaks the fourth wall. The philosophies of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment also play a huge role in this story.
Most of this book was dedicated to introducing us to the world of the 25th Century and the incestuous political system that keeps it going, with the actual plot being rather slow. I feel it needed to be this way, because this future world is very complicated, very strange, and yet it is presented so well. The story follows two different threads; the theft of a valuable seven-ten list (a list that ranks the most powerful people in the world, and that has an impact on the future balance of power) and Mycroft trying to protect Bridger, a boy who can bring inanimate objects to life.
Yes, he can bring inanimate objects to life. This is why I find it so hard to put this book in a simple category; it is science fiction with flying cars and everything, but this inexplicable miracle adds a fantasy feel to the story. I loved Bridger and his toy soldiers so much. I would have liked to spend more time with them, but it is made clear that the story of the seven-ten list is the main story Mycroft has been made to narrate. I feel it is a bit unfair to judge the plot of Too Like the Lightning, since not much is resolved. Don’t get me wrong, we get enough answers, but Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders feel like two halves of the same book, and without reading Seven Surrenders, I feel I have an incomplete view of the plot.
This book does some very interesting things with gender. In this society, it is taboo to display gender, or refer to people with gendered pronouns. Our narrator Mycroft does gender people, however it is made clear that the pronouns he assigns other characters don’t necessarily correspond to their actual sex, but rather how Mycroft wants us to view said character. For example, the main antagonist is assigned male pronouns, though it is made clear that the character in question is a woman. It’s a fascinating way to look at gender politics, and the assumptions we make about people based on their gender.
I should also mention again that I didn’t technically read this book. I listened to it as an audiobook, narrated by Jefferson Mays. Considering this is my first audiobook, I can’t really say how good the narration was compared to other audiobooks, but I feel that Mays did an excellent job here. His narration drew me into Mycroft’s story, and I liked a lot of the character voices he did. I’m going to continue to get audiobooks after this; I didn’t think I’d be that big a fan of the format, but considering how much I drive, they actually work quite well for me.
All in all, Too Like the Lightning is a unique, intelligent book. In some places, it does feel like it’s trying too hard to be smart. There was a chapter where almost all the dialog was in Latin. Not like, in universe they were speaking Latin but we read it as English, we actually had to read the Latin. Between each line of dialog there was a translation, and it made the entire conversation drag on. The focus on the 18th Century and the Enlightenment was interesting, but it gave the story a very Eurocentric feel despite having a diverse cast and a lot of the action taking place in Chile. I suppose it doesn’t help that the Middle East has been mostly destroyed, a large part of Africa is a reserve, and most of Asia is represented by one faction. Whilst we’re talking about the story’s flaws, I should mention that some of the debauchery near the end felt a bit over-the-top.
But I’m still eager to continue this series. If you aren’t put off by the antiquated writing style and the minor flaws I just mentioned, then you’ll find Too Like the Lightning to be a fascinating book unlike anything else you’ve read before.