Too Like the Lightning is the first book in the sci-fi quartet Terra Ignota (“unknown land” in Italian). The sequels are Seven Surrenders, The Will to Battle and Perhaps the Stars.
It took me ten tries to get through the first chapter and I’m not even sure why I did this to myself, but I did it and now I feel accomplished. To review this book properly, I’d need to reread it, but that’s not happening, I’m never putting myself through this again.
Too Like the Lightning is the kind of book I would love to discuss because there is a lot going on, but it’s not like I would ever recommend it to someone unless I kind of hated them.
Why? Because it’s unreadable.
Look, you can’t write a book whose first half is 90% worldbuilding and expect me to follow what’s happening, I’ll get bored. It doesn’t work, it didn’t work, and I still liked it. How can you be bored out of your mind and still like a book?
I have no idea, but it happened. I’ll try to explain.
Too Like the Lightning is set on Earth in 2454, in a society that globally outlawed religion and gender. In many ways, it’s better than our own, and its inhabitants would tell you that they live in an utopia. But do they?
The main character, who is also the narrator, seems to disagree. He believes that many things left in the past are worth restoring, so he decided to use “the language of the philosophers of the 18th century”, which includes gendered pronouns, and he has no idea how to use them. Mycroft ends up gendering people arbitrarily: he doesn’t care about looks (or how people identify, as no one identifies as anything), but he has his own stereotyped ideas of what femininity and masculinity are. To us they seem really unusual, almost as if an alien was trying to understand gender.
Mycroft is the worst narrator ever. He’s unreliable, he’s pretentious, he goes off topic far too often, and he’s an all-around bad person. A very well-written one. I also think he lies a lot, but that’s a hunch.
I almost DNFed this at least three times, but I wanted to keep reading, even when Mycroft was infodumping me again (there were a lot of infodumps), because the questions this book raises are really interesting. Also, I know many of the philosophers referenced here because I studied them last year, so that was fun.
Yes, the first half of the book is 90% infodumps, but this meant the worldbuilding was so complex I almost forgave them. Almost. But I have to say there’s a lot to talk about here.
For me, Too Like the Lightning nailed all That Inevitable Victorian Thing got wrong (as usual, YA sci-fi fails at everything). Both books are so full of infodumps I wonder how they got published, but at least the first addresses what needed to be addressed. It’s set in an “utopia”, but the narration doesn’t shy away from showing you the ugly side, the part we’d like to forget about. The main character doesn’t necessarily think this is an utopia – after all, the line between utopia and dystopia is thin.
That’s also why the reviews that called out this book make no sense to me. This book is set in an “utopia”, but this society’s attitude towards gender isn’t actually that progressive, so… this book is problematic? No, that was the whole point. This book doesn’t state it outright, because Ada Palmer is an author of adult books who assumes the reader can keep up. I don’t need the narration to spoon-feed me everything, but apparently some do.
I mean, I understand why someone would be uncomfortable with a narrator who is… a dick, basically, and is intentionally misgendering everyone, but that wasn’t why it got called out.
I didn’t think this was perfect – there were some parts which were based on cissexist assumptions and I don’t think that was intentional, as I don’t think the conversation about sex being in everything and everyone feeling attraction was a comment on the erasure of aspec people instead of actual erasure of aspec people, but if I had to call out every book with cissexism and aphobia, I’d have to call out half of what I read.
Also: there’s no such thing as French features or a Chinese face, and the book really needed a stronger ending than this.
One would think that in a book so full of infodumps the characterization would suffer, but that didn’t happen. Mycroft is a very complex, very compelling, very horrible person, and so are most of the side characters. I loved how the society was built (not because I thought it was perfect!), and I loved how the characters fit in it, and I want to know more about them. I may even read the sequel. I do think that there were too many characters, and I kept confusing the world leaders, but this was a very interesting mess to read.
TL;DR: read it! Then judge me for recommending it to you.
My rating: ★★★★
Acqua: “I hated this.”
Also Acqua: *rates it more highly than any other new novel she has read so far this year*