Hugo reading 2017: Too Like the Lightning, by Ada Palmer

Ada Palmer has been nominated for a Campbell Award, and her novel, Too Like The Lightning, which is her contribution to the Campbell voter pack, is also nominated for Best Novel.

It’s a very creative, interesting, clever, book and I haven’t been so irritated by anything in a very long time (including the government and the NHMRC).  It was *infuriating*.

Let me start by saying what I wish I’d known at the start: this is half a book.  It ends with nothing resolved, a whole bunch of secrets half-understood, and most of the cast headed in the direction of danger and likely death.  This, on it’s own, would frustrate me – I have no objection to two or three part stories, but only if the publisher plays fair and tells me up front that this is what I’m reading.

It’s at least twelve times as annoying when you are reading a book that is profoundly irritating on many, many levels, but you continue reading it because the plot, at least, is interestingly convoluted and you want to know what happens.

I wasted a day on this book and I still do not know what happens.  I was literally gritting my teeth and reading because the style was driving me mad but I cared about the characters and what happened to them, but apparently I don’t get to find out what happens to them unless I put myself through another entire book.  You cannot imagine how furious I am right now.

So, about the book itself.  Don’t believe what the blurb tells you, because it bears remarkably little resemblance to the book.  The story is set in a future world where people live in households that are essentially a formalised version of chosen family, with some biological family thrown in.  At adulthood, one declares one’s allegiance to one of the world’s seven political/cultural groups.  These groups are, of course, in competition in various ways, but also have a number of more or less nepotistic relationships with each other. What else?  Well, gender has basically become a thing that doesn’t get used, except when it does, and religion is banned due to its propensity for causing war.  Instead, there are sensayers, who are part philosopher, part counsellor, part priest, and who are authorised to talk about religion and related matters to their clients, so that people can figure out their own religion/worldview.

The narrator, Mycroft, is a former serial killer of a quite lurid and gruesome kind.  The death sentence was considered too easy for them, so instead they, like other serious criminals, are sentenced to a sort of communal slavery, where they must work for whoever asks them to, in return for food.  They are one of the main protectors of a child called Bridger, who has the ability to make toys real – mud pies become food, toy soldiers come to life and protect them, and so forth.  This is a unique and potentially dangerous ability, and so Mycroft is trying to keep Bridger a secret.

And there is a hell of a lot of political manoeuvring going on, including dozens and dozens of characters, which makes me even more furious, because I’ve just realised that if the sequel comes out in a year, I won’t have a prayer of remembering who is who unless I read this bloody novel again.  Aargh.

So, why did this book drive me up the wall?  Well, first, the narrator is literally the most aggravating character I have read in a book this year, and probably longer.  They mimic an 18th century style, love to talk directly to the reader (and often have an imaginary reader answer them), and while they live in a world and are writing about a time where people are never described in gendered terms, they delight in referring to particular characters as ‘he’ or ‘she’ instead of they.  This is evidently a taboo, and one they really enjoy breaking, because they also have to draw your attention to it every. Single. Time.  And, most of the time, they do so by noting that biologically speaking, the person he has just referred to as ‘she’ is actually male, but some particular character trait in this person means that they view this person as female, or vice versa.  (Also, they have a very prurient gaze, which is rather unpleasant.)

I think the author is trying to make some points about gender, but Mycroft’s whole attitude of ‘ooh, aren’t I being transgressive by doing this, and incidentally, I’m flipping the gender around for my own purposes which are probably just to mess with you’ is annoying beyond belief.  It’s extra annoying because I like the idea of a book that explores gender in different ways, but really, all this makes me do is yell at the book and then yell at Andrew about the book, which is not really very much like re-examining my ideas about gender at all.  It’s enough to give one sympathy for the Sad Puppies.

Here is a particularly fury-inspiring example, which I share, because I suspect that if you enjoy this, you will love the book, and if it drives you as crazy as it drives me, you should be warned that if you want to get to the actual story, you will be wading through this sort of thing every couple of chapters.


Thisbe smirked. “I do have a life outside the bash’, you know.  I’m not a voker like Ockham and Lesley, I’m only on duty twenty hours a week.”

Certainly you too, reader, like Carlyle, had formed a portrait of Thisbe who existed only in that bedroom, drinking tea and waiting for the active cast to come to her.  But let me ask you this: would you have labeled her a stay-at-home so easily had I not been reminding you with every phrase that she is a woman?

Then stop, Mycroft.  Drop these insidious pronouns which force me to prejudge in ways I would not in the natural world.  At times I think thou makest a hypocrite of me simply for the pleasure of calling me one.  Had thou not saddled Carlyle and Thisbe with ‘he’ and ‘she’ I would not remember now which sex each was, and my thoughts would be the clearer for it.

No, reader. I cannot release you from this spell.  I am not its source.  Until that great witch, greater than Thisbe, the one who cast this hex over the Earth, is overthrown, the truth can be told only in her terms.

Thou hadst best be prepared to prove that claim in time, Mycroft.  Meanwhile, since thou insistest on thy ‘he’s and ‘she’s, be clear at least.  I cannot even tell whether this Chagatai is a deep-voiced woman or a man whom thou mislabelest, obeying that ancient prejudice that housekeepers must be female.

Apologies, reader.  And I know it is confusing too that I must call this Cousin Carlyle ‘he’.  With Chagatai, however, your guess is wrong.  It is not her job which makes me give her the feminine pronoun, despite her testicles and chromosomes.  I saw her once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakeably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other ‘she’s obtain when motherhood beserks them.  That strength wins her ‘she’.


This is a LOT of gender essentialism and misgendering to stuff into one little piece of narrative in a world that allegedly does not recognise gender anyway.  Also, gah, that style is ANNOYING.  I admit, I’m a lazy reader.  I like interesting characters and an engaging plot, and I object to having to work quite this hard to get to it.  I’m not absolutely slothful – I’m willing to do the work of understanding the worldbuilding and the neologisms required to navigate it, but I find the over-the-top literary style more frustrating than appealing, and the didactic, smug narrative voice and the relentless ‘gotcha’ games with gender are just making me want to throw things.  Probably the book.

Also, the narrative does irritating things like deciding to show an entire conversation in Latin, with the translation in English beside it, and then footnotes about the type of Latin used.  I feel that this is really showing off.

Anyway, for the first 300 pages, the book is worldbuilding and setting all the (many) pieces in place for the various intrigues that are going on, and then all of a sudden we are in Paris and we are in an 18th-century-themed theology brothel.  Where they talk about De Sade a lot.  And philosophy.  But apparently theology is kinkier and more tittillating.  There is also a random nun (not a prostitute dressed as a nun, an actual nun – except that the object of her devotion is one of the characters in the book). This is also about the point where the plot takes off, and I start feeling as though maybe there is a point to reading this book after all.  And I really have to ask myself why one would wait 320 pages to introduce this, when clearly this is what the entire book should have been about.  I feel that this was a mistake on Palmer’s part.  Though I do like the part where someone is described as using theology to incapacitate his enemies.


And then we have enormous amounts of plot and everything starts building to crisis point – and that’s the end of the book, and I screamed in fury and really did throw the book at the wall.

I have no idea how to rank this, either for the Campbells or the Best Novel.  I don’t think it *can* be a best novel, because it is only half a novel.  But 18th century theology brothels in Paris really ought to be encouraged.  On the other hand, really, really irritating narrators and books that are only half books should not be encouraged.  As for the Campbells – I think that technically speaking, Palmer is the most able writer on that list.  But I’m so utterly frustrated by this book that I don’t want to put her first.

Gah.  I’m going to read the Chuck Tingle entry next, as a palate cleanser.  Pure silliness, and if nothing else, I can trust him to actually finish a story, rather than making me work that hard for no good result.

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