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Terra Ignota

Reviewed by Galen Strickland

Book 1: Too Like the Lightning | Book 2: Seven Surrenders | Book 3: The Will to Battle

A new book series with the collective title of Terra Ignota (Unknown Earth), which corresponds to a utopia, which means "no place." The first book, Too Like the Lightning, is very complex and ambitious, but not totally successful. It took three attempts to get past the first few chapters, but I am glad I persevered, and I'm interested in reading the second book. The causes for the earlier failures to engage with the story are threefold. First was the style, patterned after 18th Century literature and political writings, which the narrator justified because the 25th Century society depicted had been patterned after the Enlightenment. Second, the first few pages introduced a character that cast the story into the fantasy realm, or so it seemed, and by the end of the book that was still not explained. Third, I suspected the first person narrator was not reliable. The main reasons I want to continue with the series are to see if Palmer can explain the fantasy-like phenomena in science fiction terms, and to find out if what the narrator reveals about themselves (as well as what other people believe and say about them) is the truth. My use of those neutral pronouns also reflects how most in this society deal with gender issues. The narrator does use specific personal pronouns from time to time, and continually apologizes for it, but it does tend to confuse things when certain characters are identified as "he" or "she," then later described in opposite terms. One character, who may or may not turn out to be significant to the reveal of all plot elements, has a gender identity not known by even members of their own family group. Given names are also not a reliable indication of gender.

Years after the Church Wars, the world is loosely structured around concepts from the Age of Reason. There are seven distinct cultural "Hives," and the focus of several can be surmised from their names; Humanist, Masonic, Utopian. Others seem more geographically based; European, Mitsubishi. There are also "Hiveless" communities, but that was another element not clearly explained. One can belong to one Hive but work for a company controlled by someone from a separate Hive. The most stable family groups are known as bash'houses, which derives from the Japanese term ibasho, "a place where you feel at home being yourself." They can include families related by blood, as well as by adoption, even simple friendships (bash'mates). While the majority of bash'es are people from the same Hive, it is not a hard and fast rule. Personal freedom and autonomy is championed, while religion is proscribed, at least in public. It is acknowledged that people are allowed their personal beliefs, but proselytizing is forbidden. Two citizens can discuss things in private, but three or more in the discussion is considered a church, and illegal. To allow everyone a right to contemplate spiritual matters, a new 'priest' class is established, the Sensayers. Anyone can request a session with these consultants/analysts/confessors as needed. The intent is for the Sensayers to be familiar with all extant spiritual beliefs, so as to be able to answer any question, and/or suggest alternate avenues of thought.

Along with the philosophical themes, there are three basic mysteries explored, but none are solved in this book. One, the powers of the child Bridger is the most frustrating, since it doesn't seem to fit with the SF setting. Two, did the narrator Mycroft Canner commit the crimes he was accused of, and if so, for what purpose? Also, was it of his own volition, or (as I suspect) was it under the direction of other parties? Three, who is trying to disrupt the political balance of the Hives by framing the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash' of a theft of information? That bash', all Humanists (I think, but there may be one exception), is a very prominent one. They control the world-spanning technology of the Mukta (flying cars), a transportation system used by everyone except the Utopians, who have their own system. My main frustrations were the occasional non-linear progression of the narrative, and the philosophical asides which took too much time away from the basic plot. Mycroft is telling the story, and at times it seems as if he is dictating it to someone else, and because he tends to ramble, there are frequent reactions from the listener/reader/editor telling him to stick to the point, to quit stalling on revealing details. He hints at things several times before revealing the information, or in one particular case, adamantly refusing to divulge it. One of the Hive leaders is only known to the public as The Anonymous, their business conducted through intermediaries, although all of the other Hive leaders know who they are. The reader still doesn't, but I suspect we'll find out they are someone we know in a different context.

As I said, it is complex, and I'm convinced I missed what might have been obvious clues along the way. It's well-written in parts, poorly structured in others. It will probably be on some Hugo nomination lists, and several times I was thinking it might make mine, but it would be difficult to bump any other that has been in my Top 5 for the past four months. I think it could have been contained to one book, and would have been better for it. I will eventually read the second book, and after that, a re-read of both will probably be in order, along with companion readings of Voltaire, Rousseau, Diderot, and even de Sade, which might help in deciphering some of the clues. There is no rule that a narrator/protagonist has to be sympathetic, but if Palmer can pull that off in the full reveal of Mycroft Canner and his actions, I will be both surprised and impressed. I originally thought this was just a two book series, and I do have the second one, Seven Surrenders, and will get to it one of these days. A third title, The Will to Battle, came out December 2017, and there's at least one more projected. I will continue with this review someday.


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Ada Palmer


Amazon Links:
Too Like the Lightning
Seven Surrenders
The Will to Battle