Book review

Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer

Too Like the Lightning is set in the far future, where you can travel around the world in less than an hour, where the place you live is less important than the ideology you follow, where gendered terms are taboo – and yet, it’s written in the style of an 18th century manuscript. The very first page warns you that the book has been examined by an ‘Exposure Commission’, and has been found to contain mentions of religion, descriptions of sex and gender, and recounting of violence. So even though the reader is introduced to this strange new reality and is forced to quickly acclimatize to its customs, they have a crutch – Mycroft Canner, the book’s alleged author, who realizes that his reader may not be from his ‘present’. For this reason, he chooses to write in a long-forgotten style that most of us know only from required English class reading; he chooses to offer annotations and commentary on customs that are commonplace in his time; he chooses to guide us through this world. It’s a literary device that works surprisingly well – by blending new ideas and an old style, Palmer (the book’s actual author) consistently reminds us that nothing happens in a vacuum. Even a future as alien as the one described in the book must have come from our familiar past. And throughout the book, these seemingly-contradictory ideas of past and future intertwine in subtle yet remarkable ways. Are you familiar with your Enlightenment philosophers? I recommend brushing up before delving into this book.

As for the actual plot, it’s quite difficult to summarize. Sure, I could tell you that our narrator is Mycroft Canner, a criminal punished to roam the world for the rest of his life, forced to help others in exchange for room and board; that he comes across a sensayer, Carlisle Foster, whose job is to help people navigate spirituality in a time when organized religion is forbidden; and that they both encounter a young child named Bridger, who has the uncanny ability to bring inanimate objects to life; but this would only scratch the surface. Too Like the Lightning is also about gender expression, religious freedom, consolidated power, political struggles, and unspeakable violence. The world-building is just as spectacular as the plot, if not more so. Even though the plot spans less than a week, it feels like years – I suggest keeping a list of characters and their attributes, since the seemingly-inconsequential person from the start of the book may come back with a vengeance later on.

The part I’d most like to highlight, though, is how this book handles gender. In the world of Too Like the Lightning, gender expression of any kind is taboo – whether that’s gendered pronouns like ‘he’ and ‘she’, or clothes that evoke the gender of their wearer. Mycroft, for our benefit, uses gendered pronouns in his description of the characters, but when the characters are talking to each other, they use the singular ‘they’. In addition to being a linguist’s dream, this creates some interesting situations, since Mycroft admits that he doesn’t base someone’s gender on their physical attributes. Instead, Mycroft uses gender to divide, describe, or relate. He calls those in the majority opinion ‘he’ and the minority ‘she’ to emphasize their differences; he calls someone ‘she’ because Mycroft explains that he ‘saw [the character] once when someone threatened her little nephew, and the primal savagery with which those thick hands shattered the offender was unmistakably that legendary strength which lionesses, she-wolves, she-bats, she-doves, and all other “she”s obtain when motherhood berserks them. That strength wins her “she.”‘; Carlisle is ‘he’ solely due to their monk-like profession. It forced me to re-evaluate how I pictured the characters and their interactions, and led me to better picture this truly gender-neutral world. I kept thinking of The Left Hand of Darkness – but while Left Hand calls everyone ‘he’, Lightning goes the singular ‘they’ route, which I find to be much more effective.

Yes, it is grotesque at times, and yes, the plot is sometimes hard to follow, and yes, there really are some quite abhorrent, graphic depictions of violence. So if you’re squeamish, you’ve been warned. But I loved this book so much that I actually ended up buying it when it came time to return it to the library and I couldn’t renew it. I recently bought the sequel, Seven Surrenders, and can’t wait to dive back into this world.

Dates read: March 8-27, 2017

Rating: Five stars


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