Throwback Thursday: Too Like The Lightning

Book cover: Too Like the Lightning - Ada Palmer (a hazy view of flying craft near a spire)The world has changed, nation states swept away after global religious wars. Now a conspiracy threatens the utopian order that rose from the ashes – and the only person trusted to investigate is a murderer who already guards entirely too many of the world’s greatest secrets…

I’ve been meaning to read Too Like The Lightning for years; now the Terra Ignota series is finished, I finally got around to it thanks to a timely invite from Mayri the BookForager to join her in a buddy read. I don’t know what I expected: I knew very little about it going in. Having finished it – and discussed it at length with Mayri (read our suggestive but spoiler-free musings) – I’m not actually sure I know much more now.

In a couple of centuries, countries will have been replaced by international social groupings called Hives. Families will have been superceded by bashes – extended household who may or may not be related or in relationships, tied together by shared goals or outlooks. Individuals choose their bash and their Hive; the Hives elect leaders who sit on a global council. Borders are a thing of the past. This is a utopian future based on global rapid transit, freedom of choice, and a conscious desire to keep the world in balance.

The world has turned its back on religion, having only narrowly avoided total destruction because of it. Reason is prized above all else; cults are deeply feared and rooted out. Sanctioned individuals are available for philosophical discussions to help individuals wrestle with faith and/or morality. Gender is (nominally) ambiguous, in an attempt to level the playing field.

And yet here is a little boy who can bring inanimate objects to life, or realise drawings as physical objects that work as he imagines. Here is another young person who can effectively rewire someone’s brain with a few well-chosen words. They are not rational beings. They do not fit the pattern of the world. They invite worship. They are – by definition – dangerous.

Too Like The Lightning describes itself as a history of how the world changed again; but it never tells you what it changes into. It is addressed to readers who are part of this future; you know the outcome. I found myself trying to absorb the world being described and to infer the world it was being described to; as well as trying to second-guess the reliability of everything I was being told, knowing the narrator was making arbitrary choices thanks to a predilection for breaking the fourth wall and replying to an unknown editor in the text. It’s a lot; expect a massive mental work-out.

But is it worth the effort?

I finished Too Like The Lighting very conflicted. It’s wildly ambitious. The world-building is immense. The plot is intricate; the subplots numberless. The narrative – and that narration, not to mention that narrator – are challenging. It’s a philosophical debate tackling centuries-old themes of morality, religion, the individual, the soul and free will through the lens of science fiction. This is gold dust, right?

And yet.

I found the narration challenging for the wrong reasons – transparently manipulative, deliberately obscure. I often had to force my way through it (and I have some Latin, and a passing awareness of 18th century French philosophy, as well as a weakness for world-building, labyrinthine narratives and purple prose). I spent far too much energy trying to keep track of what was going on – when Caesar turned around mid-novel and said ‘I don’t get why everyone is so exercised about this’ I felt vindicated, but it also increased my frustration. After all, this is a curated history; if I was as bewildered as Caesar (and I was), Mycroft is a terrible, terrible narrator (amongst other things).

More challenging for me, I didn’t care about most of the key characters. The most intriguing group (the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash) were largely sidelined until a final act reveal that had me screaming for the story I would rather have read. Of others who piqued my interest, Madame was a cypher; Saladin given a single chapter to emerge from the shadows and show his terrifying principles; Bridger and JEDD Mason kept firmly out of frame. The narrative was more interested in teasing secret identities and relationships amongst the world leadership; but it never convinced me any of these actually mattered except as a heavy-handed illustration of how incestuous the corridors of power.

If nothing else, Too Like The Lightning has finally answered the question of what I value most: character, plot or world-building. All three – but without characters I care about, it doesn’t matter how clever the other two elements are; I can get lost along the way.

Consequently, Too Like The Lightning often felt like drowning in treacle, with sporadic outbursts of rage (I hated Dominic and the villainous sexposition). I was frustrated that the world-building – so socially interesting in principle – ultimately focused only on the palaces of the powerful and a brothel – when depicting a future utopia, no less. What a wasted opportunity. As with so much of the novel, it’s clearly in conversation with much that has gone before (both SFnal and otherwise), but I’m not convinced it’s a conversation I care to listen to in full.


I’ve continued thinking about it for weeks. It is full of interesting ideas. It fascinated me, even if I resented reading it (and I frequently did). This may be one of the cleverest things I’ve read in years; or it may be the Emperor’s new clothes – I’m still annoyed that I can’t tell. I am intimidated by the thought of diving into the sequel, but I sort of want to see where its going and hope that its goal is worth the hard yards.

But one thing I can be sure of: it’s a desperately impressive – and divisive – debut.