So the 2017 Hugo nominees were announced, and I discovered that I had read literally zero of the novel nominees (though I have read The Ballad of Black Tom, which is apparently considered a mere novella). I usually get some book recommendations from the Hugo nominee list, but I haven’t read all the nominees since 2011, for one reason or another. But this year’s list all look to be interesting, so I figure I’ll give it a go.
First up is Ada Palmer’s How Like the Lightning, which I picked because it’s one of the few books on the list that isn’t the second or third book of a series, so it’d only commit me to reading a single book. Or so I thought, up until I got to the end of it and saw a “here ends the first half of our story” thing, at which point I sighed and also picked up Seven Surrenders, which more or less completes the story. (There are to be more sequels, and there’s plenty of room for them, but the key elements of this one are wrapped up in it.)
So this is apparently Palmer’s first novel, but you really wouldn’t know it from reading. It is incredibly accomplished at a technical level, with a complexity and command that you rarely see from a first novelist.
Really, the word to best describe the novel is “layered.” It’s the story of a future society that is vastly, enormously different from our own, and it’s narrated by an author who is writing in a kind of deliberately retro-eighteenth-century omniscient-first style for a presumed future audience living in a different society. And so the narrator is explaining the world to the reader, as one does when writing about alien societies, but they’re also showing the world to you, and these things don’t always mesh up perfectly, anymore than Thomas Jefferson’s high-flown writings about liberty align with him being a slaveholder.
So there’s definitely this level of the unreliable narrator to it, which puts me in mind of Gene Wolfe novels, but there are layers in more senses than just that. There are layers of revelation as the plot builds; there are the layers of sediment that lie in the backstory of the book. Palmer is apparently a historian by trade, and this reads like a book written by a historian, aware of how alien societies can be across time, and how their concerns and morals—and even their crimes and perversions—might not be readily comprehensible in terms of the present.
(And as a side note, there are crimes and perversions aplenty. The content warnings on the front of the books are world-building for the future society, but also not lies. There is a portion of these books that was getting to more sordid and unpleasant than I generally like; it never crossed the line for me, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there are people for whom it did.)
I’ve probably already said too much here—I went into these books knowing nothing, and I think that’s pretty ideal—but these are also books where, even though I absolutely loved them and tore through them at top speed, I think they will not be to everyone’s taste, so I figured I needed to give more than a blanket recommendation. (Amazon reviews seem to back this up; the first book gets a pile of five-star ratings, but it also gets a lot of “this is total garbage, who could like this” comments.) But if you like unreliable-narrator future-history SF with some 18th century flair and a bunch of talky philosophy, boy howdy is this the book for you.