A couple of years ago I read Ada Palmer’s Too Like the Lightning for one of my Hugo review posts. I then went straight to the sequel, Seven Surrenders, and devoured book 3, The Will to Battle, as soon as I could. Since then it has been a long wait for the end of the series, Perhaps the Stars. Given how long I have been waiting for this book, and how complex the series is, I thought it would be a good idea to reread the first three books before I start Perhaps the Stars. This proved to be a good idea for two reasons; first, I had forgotten a lot of little but important details. Second, I think this series is better on the reread.
Just re-reading the first chapter of Too Like the Lightning, already knowing how this world works, was so good. I was better able to follow along, and better able to appreciate all the small details in this amazing opening scene. Also, re-reading it while knowing the secrets all these characters are keeping was so satisfying. Being able to recognise foreshadowing the second time around is always fun, but in these books it felt extra rewarding. Even though I knew what was coming plotwise, I still felt excited. Possibly more excited than my first read. Re-reading these books with gaps in my memories of them feels like watching fictional characters react to something you love, and getting giddy thinking about how they’re gonna react to the big plot twist.
As you can probably tell, I haven’t gone back and reread any of my old favourite books for many years. My To Be Read pile is just too big.
So, what is Terra Ignota? This post I’m just going to talk about Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders, because they are really two halves of the same story, whilst The Will to Battle is a sequel. This is true in universe too. I’ll explain more later.
The Terra Ignota series is a unique blend of science fiction, fantasy, politics, discussions on religion, gender, and philosophy. The books are presented as the works of Mycroft Canner, a convict who has witnessed most of the events in the story, but who may not be the most reliable narrator. He addresses the story to hypothetical readers from the far future who may not understand how things work in the current time (which is pretty convenient for us readers in the past), and tries to invoke the style of 18th centaury writers. Part of this style choice involves Mycroft gendering the characters in the story; something that is taboo in universe. He doesn’t assign gender based on biology or identity, but rather on how well Mycroft thinks the characters embody certain gender stereotypes or traits.
Mycroft also imagines how readers will react to certain parts and has conversations with his hypothetical reader. Proof that ‘show don’t tell’ has its exceptions. Mycroft will just ask the Reader if they know about a certain thing, then dump us with a bunch of exposition, or go off on a tangent about characters or places or history. And he makes us love it; a good narrative voice gets around the problem of how to introduce readers into such a complicated world. Since these two books also exist in universe, the way we are presented with certain information can also be part of the story. For example, near the start of Seven Surrenders, a character named Sniper narrates a chapter for us. Their attitude and a lot of things they say in their commentary doesn’t make a lot of sense at the time. In narrative order they have only met JEDD Mason once, so their sudden hatred of them seems out of place. Of course, we later realize that Sniper wrote that chapter after the events of Seven Surrenders. It is not just foreshadowing of the ending to book #2, but also an actual look at a character who is already in book #3. In The Will to Battle we actually get the scene where Sniper decides to write this chapter.
I’ll save most of my discussion of all these fourth wall shenanigans until Part 2, where I talk about The Will to Battle, since this is all ramped up there. For now, just take note that as Reader, you have been assigned a place in this universe and a role in the story.
Plotwise, these books tell the story of a utopia. In this world, everything is great and everyone is happy. The nation state has given way to Hives – voluntary nations without borders – there are flying cars which make it possible to get anywhere on Earth within two hours, no-one goes hungry, everyone lives long healthy lives, all public talk about religion is banned and discussion of gender identities is taboo. Wait what? Oh, and the work week is only twenty hours long. So awesome. Anyways, one normal day in this apparently perfect society, publishers are getting ready to put out their seven-ten lists; yearly lists ranking the world leaders and other influential people. One of these lists is stolen from a newspaper office in Tokyo, and planted in a family house in Chile. Seven days later everything is on fire. Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders are Mycroft’s history of these seven days, commissioned to explain to the world how their utopian society broke down so quickly.
The plot is full of intrigue. There are so many mysteries and conspiracies, and on a re-read, it was fun seeing all the clues that a first time reader would have very little hope of picking up. So much of Too Like the Lightning was given over to introducing us to the huge cast of characters and the intricacies of this strange new world of 2454. Despite Palmer’s 2454 being so alien from our own world, I found myself becoming immersed in it. When JEDD Mason started talking about people’s religious beliefs in public, I already understood this world and its sensibilities enough to feel uncomfortable. Or at least I did the second time; this is a very challenging book, and looking back, I admit that that scene confused me the first time around.
Despite the universe of Terra Ignota seeming like a utopia, as these seven days go by we see that this society is much more fragile than it appears. The two biggest flaws in society; the silencing of discussion on religion and stigmatization of gender expression, are revealed to be two of the biggest threats to world peace. This is a world that has declared feminism victorious and moved on from any further discussions about equality and non-binary gender identities.
When I first talked about this book, I mentioned that I wasn’t a fan of a lot of the gender discussion. I think that’s because I was taking a lot of what characters were saying at face value, rather than taking into account that this is a society with such a warped view of gender that it’s possible to take over the world with a gendered period costume brothel. At one point in the story a character our narrator Mycroft has been gendering as male has an emotional breakdown and Mycroft switches to female pronouns. Mycroft gives a pretty long, convoluted reason for the change, then has the Reader ask if that is all true, or if this is just a reflection of Mycroft’s own bias. Mycroft admits he cannot be sure. We also have Sniper – an intersex character famous for being a living doll that Mycroft saddles first with he/him, and then with it/its – flat out tell us not to trust Mycroft’s pronouns. A lot of the explicit theorizing on gender is meant to be flawed, both because of society and because Mycroft is an unreliable narrator with his own blind spots in this regard. Considering how uncomfortable this makes some aspects of Sniper and Dominic’s descriptions and characterizations, I wish the fact that this society sucks at understanding gender diversity was less subtle.
Of course there are a lot of things I do like about the take on gender. Not being able to trust Mycroft’s use of pronouns means that anyone whose apparent biological sex isn’t specified could be assigned any gender, which is interesting. Places that do acknowledge gender (such as the aforementioned costume brothel) also distinguish between gender and biological sex, even if there is insufficient understanding on gender diversity. The “There were ladies of both sexes” line might just refer to the type of gender play the brothel offers, but I read Dominic Seneschal as a transman rather than a drag king. Though of course, there is a very real possibility that Madame assigns gender based not on the needs and identities of her ‘creations’ but on her own needs. Therefore it is impossible to really say where Dominic sits on the gender spectrum.
Bottom line is that gender is complicated in this book. I like the idea, and I like that we see the pitfalls of what happens when a society declares it is past a certain issue and shuts down the conversation. Some aspects of this take I’m not a fan of though; such as Sniper being assigned it/its pronouns.
I did not really expect to spend so much time focused on gender here; I really wanted to focus more on Bridger, and the theology aspects of the story. I think I’ll leave most of that discussion to part 2, since I want to go over a topic that needs spoiler tags, and I think there’s less chance of someone who hasn’t read these books reading a post focused on The Will to Battle. I think that’s also a better place to discuss some of the stories other themes, since this is a hard story to talk about with out spoiling any of the reveals.
Let’s finish this post by going back to that amazing opening scene again.
We start our Terra Ignota adventure with Carlyle Foster showing up at the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash’ house as their newly appointed sensayer. With public discussion of religion being banned, talk about spiritual matters is confined to private therapy-like sessions with a professional trained in theology and all the world religions, called a sensayer. Sensayer Carlyle walks into the house, and instantly sees a miracle. A group of soldiers 5cms tall stand on a table, many wounded from an encounter with a cat. One is dead. One of Carlyle’s new parishioners, Thisbe Saneer, draws a picture of a healing potion, then gives it to a child named Bridger. With just a touch, Bridger turns the picture into a real healing potion, and uses it to heal the wounded soldiers.
Yes, in this science fiction story of future politics and realistic technologies, there is a child that can bring toys to life. And with discussion of religion being so stifled, it’s hard for people to talk about the fact that there is a miracle happening. Its hard to imagine how to reveal Bridger to the world, or even if the world is ready. This isn’t an explicitly Christian science fiction story, it feels like science fiction where theology, rather than technology, is what has been given the speculative treatment. I mean, there is a lot of speculative technology in this story too, but I’m just focusing on the miracle side of the story for now. Whilst the theology in this story is Eurocentric, it is not preaching any particular belief. Whilst Bridger is a miracle sent by God, he doesn’t actually know why, and he hasn’t met God.
This element of the story could have been a complete train wreck. A lesser author might have made Bridger a preachy marty-stu dues ex mechina. After all, a character with the power to make literally anything, heal any injury, and bring back the dead could very easily solved any conflict and taken away any tension in the story. Instead, Bridger’s young age, inexperience, and the fear of mistakes that he and the adults around him share impose realistic limits to his power use. Though when he wants to do something, he is shown to be able to do pretty much anything. When he decides to rescue some friends, he makes a crystal ball, a teleporter, an invisibility cloak, Thor’s super strength belt, Hermes’s flying boots, a magic wand, healing and resurrection potions, and Excalibur. The limit to how much Bridger can solve all the plot elements isn’t his ability, it is his characterization, and it is a testament to Palmer’s skill that this was pulled off so well.
I also just found the army men to be super charming, despite being the best military unit on the planet. They are toy plastic soldiers that Bridger brought to life as a toddler, and they have been protecting him ever since. They constantly go on reconnaissance missions, they get their weapons and ammo by Bridger bringing pictures of ammo to life, and they live in a dolls house and eat out-of-scale food. There was also a battle described between them and Mycroft, with allusions to Gulliver and the Lilliputians thrown in. Bridger’s powers are just so fun. Until the world starts falling apart and Bridger is forced to think seriously about how he should be using his powers.
I have a lot more to say about this series, but I think it’ll be easier to expand on some of the themes and speculative theology while discussing The Will to Battle. For now, my final thoughts on Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders are that this is one of the most unique stories I have seen in a long time. Huge immersive world, crazy plot, and a lot of food for thought. There are some aspects of the gender discussion I’m not a huge fan of, but overall I like the way it looks at the subject. Plotwise, I guess I would have like a bit more focus on what Sniper was doing, because the end did feel a little out of no-where the first time around, even though I could see the pieces fall into place the second time. I should also mention that the in-universe content warnings do mention a lot of triggering things, like rape and sexual assault. There is nothing too bad taking place in the story, but there are a lot of mentions of things done in the past, so some parts of this story could be hard to read for some people.
I’m about to start my re-read of The Will to Battle. Then, I’ll be in completely unknown lands with Perhaps the Stars. I am so pumped.
4 thoughts on “Terra Ignota Re-Read Part 1: Too Like the Lightning & Seven Surrenders”
Great discussion! I bought Perhaps the Stars but I’ve forgotten so much of the story that I’m thinking of rereading The Will to Battle to get into it again. That would make for a better reading experience of the final book.
Thanks. And yeah, I’d recommend a re-read. I just finished re-reading Will to Battle and there is just so much being set up that I had forgotten about. Hope you enjoy the re-read and the conclusion.
I hope so too. So far, the series has been a real masterwork so I have faith in Palmer.
Yeah, I feel the same. I am so glad the wait for Perhaps the Stars is over.