One of the benefits of taking a vacation can be a lot of travel time – which in my case means a lot of reading time. I managed to knock out some of my bigger to-reads while I was out, so let’s start with one of the densest books I have read this year, Ada Palmer’s sophomore effort: Seven Surrenders. This dense leviathan of a book is the sequel to Too Like The Lightning, one of the best science fiction novels I have read in a long time. The question is, does the sequel hold up and can Palmer recreate her lightning in a bottle, or make lighting strike in the same place twice, or… ok fine I will stop with the lightning puns.
If you haven’t read Too Like The Lightning, here is a link to a brief discussion of why the book is brilliant. Discovering the plot of both books is definitely a part of the appeal, so I will keep my spoilers to a minimum. Seven Surrenders picks up right where Too Like the Lighting left off. While Lightning was a book written to ask questions, Surrenders is a book made to provide answers. Palmer has said that she designed this quartet more like two sets of two books each. Following this, Seven Surrenders both does a great job wrapping up plots from the first book and setting up the second duo of novels. By the end of Lightning we learn of the existence of a number of dark secrets, plots, and ideas. Thus Seven Surrenders is about what happens when these dark facts that bind their society together comes to light, and about how that society unravels and changes in the light of the truth.
I know some of you read the last paragraph and felt that I actually said almost nothing of substance about the books other than some large words. As I mentioned, it is really hard to talk about the plots of these books because almost everything is a spoiler. However, while I won’t give away any of the plot – I can talk more about why this series continues to rise as one of my top science fiction stories I have ever read. So many books I have read seem to be written by authors on a path of discovery. Sure they have the basic outline of the plot, but they learn and change their narrative as they write it – characters rise and fall in levels of importance or certain parts of the world get more fleshed out as authors realize they want to expand on them as series progress. Palmer feels like she sat down and knew exactly what she was going to write from page one. These books feel meticulously planned out – each word and idea is there for a reason, contributing to the narrative as a whole. Her background in academia definitely shines through her work, as I feel I am reading a really compellingly written paper that is thoroughly entertaining to read.
Part of the additional wonder of these novels is Palmer is a master of arguing for, and against, her ideas. This series poses a number of interesting thought experiments and philosophical ideas. Ada is extremely good at showing you why these thoughts are good and righteous, only to often come back and tear down her own arguments with previously unthought of counter points. It creates a book series where you find yourself thinking and questioning everything constantly. These are not books for a passive reader – you will be an active part of the story every second you are in it. This can be exhausting, but as a result Lightning and Surrenders have generated some of the best discussions I have had in a decade from a book. Palmer’s skill for manipulating the reader through the narrative is on par with some of the best I have read. Her ability to organically shift the way I see and think of various characters with a single paragraph is astounding. I have flip flopped on which characters I am rooting for so many times that I have lost count, and the result is a book that feels real.
“Real” is a confusing concept when talking about works of fiction. In this instance what I really mean is that Palmer has made a world and narrative so immersive and so convincing that it feels closer to a historical text than a story someone wrote. The internal logic of the story is so tight that I find myself angry at characters for the choices they make, not at Palmer for the way she decided to write the story. These are the hallmarks of a master of narrative voice and worldbuilding and they make the victories and tragedies in Surrenders feel personal and emotionally resonant. As a result, the books can be a bit difficult to read. When something horrible happens to a character you like it can be saddening, but some of the awful things that happen in these books felt like they might be in my actual future and they occasionally filled me with despair.
This is a series that you should be reading, and will be talked about as one of the best in a generation in the coming years. The books require work to read, but like with all work you will appreciate and care about the end much more than you do in books where you are swept along with little involvement. Book three of this series, The Will to Battle, comes out this December, and if it stays as good as Seven Surrenders I am sure I will be adding this series to my tier 1 list at the end of the year.
Rating: Seven Surrenders – 9.5/10