Aug 252016

lightningToo Like The Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Synopsis: This book is about your reaction to it. Heed the trigger warnings. The plot is incidental.

Book Review: Wow, man, where do I begin? Ambitious is an understatement.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Yes, this book has trigger warnings. It needs them, which I’ll get into in tomorrow’s in-depth, spoileriffic post. It is impressive that Palmer got trigger warnings into her book, because that’s frowned upon in “serious literature.” The way she did this is by having the trigger warnings be integral to the story itself. This book takes place several hundred years in the future, and humanity has (re)embraced censorship for societal good. The conceit of this book is that it is a history written by a person in that era, so the book itself must first be approved by the censorship bodies. This provides your first dive into this world – where the approval and comments of various censorship boards preface the history itself. You learn right off the bat that not only does this world have censorship, it has strong anti-religious censorship, and it is controlled by a number of vying factions who have very unique ways of expressing themselves. One censorship body is an arm of the Mitsubishi corporation. Another writes only in Latin. It is incredibly effective world-building, and the tigger warnings themselves almost sneak by you! Which is why I felt the need to say “No, seriously, heed them.”

The novel is an INTENSE exercise in world building and character crafting. Almost every page reveals something new about the world, or how our protagonist exists within it. It builds itself up slowly, but with astounding richness. One member of our bookclub said “It’s like one of those Magic Eye pictures, and comes into focus as you read.”

I will say that I almost didn’t read past the first chapter, because I found it infuriating. The setting is a high-tech hard-SF future. The first chapter focuses almost entirely on a wishy-washy mealy-mouthed priest of the kind I get so damn frustrated with, because every single thing he says is “Well, SOME people say this, OTHERS say that.” Or “What do you think? Yes, that could be.” He’s saying all this to a pre-pubescent boy, who really could use some real fucking answers that we actually HAVE and could provide to him! The priest’s job is literally to encourage any hare-brained religious thought, even including something like “Well, do you think Thor creates lightning with his magic hammer? It could be! Some people say that.” The rage, it was like flames, at the side of my face. You learn later on in the book that there’s a very good reason that society is shaped this way, but I almost didn’t make it through it.

In addition to that, we are in a high-tech hard-SF future, and in chapter one we are introduce to a literal god-child. A kid who can create miracles. Any toy he touches comes to life. Not via holograms, or nano-fog, or any sort of “looks like magic” tech. Literal magic. Plastic soldiers turn into 2-inch tall flesh-and-blood humans who talk, think, have internal organs and blood, and can be killed in the ways you’d imagine. It drove me nuts, and I wanted to hurl the book across the room. (Again, I later came to appreciate this, which I’ll cover tomorrow)

The one thing that kept me going was the absolutely enthralling writing style. This novel is written in what I’m now thinking of as an “Enlightenment Style”, wherein the author directly addresses the reader. (Well, that and seeing lots of praise from authors I respect) It is the most unique and fascinating style I’ve ever read, and the lush (and bizarre!) world made me decide to give it another chapter. And the more I read, the more I was intrigued. The narrator not only addresses you directly, he later begins to speak FOR you, and you engage him in a dialog in the pages of the book! It’s fantastic! And he’s such a genuinely good person that you really start to care for him. I decided I would keep going until I got bored.

And then I hit That Scene. The Promised Reveal. I will not say what it is, because it would not be fair to spoil this book for you in that way. But every person who has read this book will know immediately what Scene I mean, and they will give me a knowing look and say “Yeah. Man. That fuckin’ Scene.” I still feel charges of emotion over a week later, typing about it. I literally had to put the book down, and walk away from it for several days. It made me think about myself. It made me think about what I want in fiction, and how I relate to an author. I was almost positive I’d come back to finish the book, but I needed some time. And maybe I wouldn’t come back after all.

Of course, I did. But the amount of introspection and emotional reaction I got from That Scene alone was amazing. I will remember this book for decades. And while it is the most powerful scene in the novel, it is not the only good one, there are several other brilliant moments throughout it. This novel just came out a few months ago, and I will be surprised if it doesn’t end up on a number of award lists.

That being said – this novel is slow. My summary was a little facetious – there is actually a plot. But you don’t really find out what it is until you’re about 80% of the way through the book. The rest of the time it is world-building, character-building, and laying groundwork. There are many times when I thought “Why do I care about these people? Who cares about that a popularity contest result was leaked a couple days early? What is my investment in any of this?” The majority of the action is dialog or conversation, much of it often deeply philosophical. You know the anime we grew up on, things like Akira or Ghost In the Shell, where characters will break into discussion about the purpose of consciousness and the underpinnings of the human psyche? And it’s a total trip, and you think “damn this is marvelous” and then it goes back to blowing shit up? Imagine that, without the blowing shit up part. Personally, I LOVE that sort of thing. It’s why I hated the first chapter so much (the priest is sooooo wrong and stupid!), but everyone else in the novel has much better and more interesting things to say than that priest. The entire society is based upon Enlightenment thinkers and philosophers, and they act the part.

What I’m saying is, this is a glorious work! It has what I would consider some flaws, but everyone will find different flaws in it, and that’s one of the signs of something that’s more than the sum of its parts. I don’t know if it’s a masterpiece. Maybe it is. But it is certainly unique and exciting.

Before I recommend it – this book is certainly not for everyone. I mean yes, some people will find it boring and dreary. But more importantly – if you are the type of person that is traumatized by the things described in the book’s trigger warnings, you really should stay away. For anyone who falls in that category – strongly not recommended! But since the conceit of my reviews is “What would I say to myself if I could tell the me of 15 days ago if this novel is a good use of their spare reading time over the next 2 weeks?” – Strongly Recommended.

Book Club Review: This is much harder to say. When I was driving in to my book club meeting, I was on edge in a way I haven’t been in years. I suspected some people would hate this. I was worried some people would be angry at me for recommending it.

In the Afterwards, Palmer says that one of her goals in writing this book was to join the Great Conversation. She has succeeded IN SPADES. There is so much to talk about within the pages of this book that I can’t even begin to summarize it all. Normally when I go to a book club meeting, I open my eReader and scroll through my highlighted passages to talk about what I liked. This time I had to take notes on my highlights before I went, because I had highlighted so damn much! You could run three different book club meetings off this one book if you wanted to, tackling different issues each time. It is that rich.

But on the other hand, a couple members felt it was too complex. A couple others stopped reading early-ish, because they grew bored with the slow pace and the low emotional stakes. And, again, if you have any members of your book club who will be triggered by the things presented in the warning, you shouldn’t ask them to read it (and/or make them feel excluded by basing a meeting around a book they can’t read). This is a book that I feel uncomfortable recommending en masse, please use your discretion. That being said, none of us knew what we were getting into when we started it, no one was traumatized or triggered, and we had one of the most exciting and interesting meetings that I’ve been a part of. That can be considered a tacit “Recommended With Cautions.”

Oh, also, the book is Part 1 of 2, and ends with (almost literally) “to be continued.”

  4 Responses to “SF/F Review – Too Like The Lightning”

  1. More part 1 of 4 I thought?

    • It does say it’s part of a 4-book series. But usually books in a series have a complete story within them, which ties into the series-long arc.This one literally ends with “this will be continued in the next book” and there is no closure to any story line or character arc. I get the feeling that it is the first half one one VERY long novel, and the last two books will be their own books (or perhaps another two-parter). Which is why I consider it Part 1 of 2, rather than a full book in it’s own right. Does that make sense? It’s like Best of Both Worlds Part 1 and 2 is basically a single episode, even though it was spread over two episodes when it aired.

  2. I disagree. The worldbuilding felt interesting, but by the end it’s revealed as a cheat; the system doesn’t work, it’s not clear it ever did, and an implausibly successful conspiracy with pet serial killers is the only thing keeping a lid on it. It made everything feel empty.

    It was still entertaining, because a significantly inferior The Diamond Age borrowing the conceit of Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is still closer to my favorite novel than anything in years. But it’s way oversold and does not even slightly live up to the hype.

    (Also, it took me most of a minute to figure out which Scene you meant. I’m still not sure.)

    • >the system doesn’t work, it’s not clear it ever did, and an implausibly successful conspiracy with pet serial killers is the only thing keeping a lid on it. It made everything feel empty.

      I thought that made it feel more real, and finally introduced the first real excitement in the novel. :) Actual stakes!

      I am embarrassed to say I still haven’t read Strange & Norrell, but I’m using your comment to bump it up higher in my priority list. I keep hearing about it, and I just gotta find the time to actually read the thing.

      I didn’t hear a ton of hype when I started it, just a few “This is really quite good!”s, so I guess my expectations weren’t as high. Which is always the curse, isn’t it? You want people to read something you liked, but the more you encourage them to do so, the less they will have the same experience you did, because the more they’ll be expecting. I’ve been very disappointed by perfectly good movies before, just because all the hype really set them up for failure. :/

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