Too Like the Lightning – Ada Palmer

81hifvbq-4lI really enjoyed this book, with the exception of two elements, one minor and one tangential to the story but quite troubling in terms of race.

Before I discuss those elements, I want to talk about what I liked, because there is A LOT to like and I do highly recommend this book. The protagonist/narrator, Mycroft Canner, is a fascinating and mysterious character, who is keeping a lot back from the audience, but revealing just enough to tantalize. SPOILERS FOLLOW:

A (perhaps?) reformed serial killer, who is still protecting and in love with his partner-in-crime, he also takes care of a child with fantastic powers (this is ultimately more fantasy than sci-fi, despite the flying cars and sociology). He’s also mysteriously connected to a man who may just be the god of another universe. His narration is disturbing, sexually charged, and utterly compelling.

Other characters are also fun: the demure but brave Carlyle, who will not be intimidated when knowledge is at stake; Thisbe, a brash, non-stereotypical Indian woman; Saladin, the partner-in-crime, “liberated” and ruthless. I can’t wait for the sequel, Seven Surrenders, to find out what happens to them. And also to find out more of the backstory of Mycroft and Saladin’s victims–the little we are given whets the appetite.

The things I didn’t like–the description of members of the Asia-based Mitsubishi (a sort of “shareholder democracy” in a post-national world) is off. Their culture is more an extrapolation of well-known features of the classical past of East Asia than an extrapolation of where they might go in a few hundred years. I thought it was less well-done than the extrapolation of where Europe would go culturally.

What I really disliked, much more intensely, was that Africa is not really part of the “civilized world” in this future. There’s a “Great African Reservation” with warlords and borders, and though there are non-stereotypical black characters, they are based outside of sub-Saharan Africa. (For context, the other reservations are for religious groups such as Mennonites, Catholics, and Tibetan Buddhists). I found this a troubling piece of worldbuilding and hope it is somehow explained or developed in a different direction in later books.

These reservations aside, it will be on my Hugo ballot this year and I will read the next one.




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