Right, so I debated whether or not to follow through with starting a book review blog for a while, but this particular novel messed me up. Not in a "rip your heart out through your rib cage" sort of way, but more like a "sucker punch to the cerebrum" deal.
"Too Like the Lightning" is the debut science fiction novel of Ada Palmer, a professor in the History Department of the University of Chicago. For a debut, it's an unqualified triumph. Seriously, there are people making the New York Time's Bestseller List on a regular basis that aren't this good. It's not perfect, but it's damned good.
The story is told from the perspective of Mycroft, a reformed criminal who serves as the narrator. He's a member of a group known as Servicers. Servicers are criminals who pose no threat to society and have been allowed a limited amount of freedom. They own no property and can make no money, and must work for every meal. That is their penance: every day is filled with labor performed at the behest of their betters, or they starve.
It all begins with the theft of a document whose importance isn't properly explained until a couple hundred pages of the book. The theft sets of a series of events that have the potential to destroy society as they know it. Mycroft is recruited to work with various world leaders to help discover exactly what happened to it, and to help prevent the end of their world. Exactly what his role is in this world, and the crime he committed to earn his sentence, are revealed slowly throughout the course of the novel.
I'm not going to get into particular about the plot. For starters, I'd have to explain exactly how everything works, and to do that, I'd damn near have to write a book myself. The world is huge and intricate, and it takes flowcharts (handily provided) to figure out how it all works. There's precious little wasted in "Too Like the Lightning", and that's one of its biggest flaws. This is a book that was written on the assumption that the audience would be able to keep up, and it spends exactly zero time holding your hand. It'll throw you a bone every now and then, such as with the charts, but the author assumes that you're well read on everything from Enlightenment philosophy to socioeconomics. It treats events several hundred years in the future with the same disregard for the uninformed, which can at times be maddening.
The narration itself is also occasionally maddening. Mycroft tells the story from his point of view, and he's an unreliable narrator of the truest sort. He mentions, for instance, that the use of gendered pronouns is a taboo. This is brought up as he profusely apologizes to the reader for insisting on using them, often incorrectly. He assigns genders with wild abandon, and the hell of it is, he knows they don't match up with biology and apologizes profusely. A measurable percentage of the book is Mycroft apologizing to the reader for his perceived flaws as a narrator. He even takes it upon himself to assume the role of the reader and scolds himself for them, and then apologies profusely before thanking the reader for enduring despite his shortcomings. It's extraordinarily jarring, but at the same time, it gives you the sense that you're talking with a real flesh and blood person as opposed to a character on a page.
In general tone and feel, "Too Like the Lightning" reminds me most of the works of Alfred Bester. For those of you who haven't heard of him, Bester is probably one of the best kept secrets of the Golden Age of Science Fiction. Everyone remembers Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke, but Bester remains relatively obscure in this day and age, which is a damned shame. Though he only wrote two novels and a smattering of short stories, his works are among the best and the brightest of the era, and are considered to be among the most influential, even if they are relatively obscure. One of Bester's greatest strengths as a writer was building a world through inference. He'd slip details in passing that, though seemingly insignificant, helped the reader build a picture of the world without spelling it out. It's a lost art in this day and age, and one that Palmer seems to have rediscovered.
Despite being one of the best books I've read in a long, long time, I can't in good faith recommend "Too Like the Lightning." It's a fantastic book if you've got the time to digest it, but I get the feeling that, in a few year's time, this is going to be one of those books that lit-snobs use to show how much better they are than everyone else because they're the only ones that really understand it. They're gonna be freaking insufferable, and I'm gonna have to punch someone at a book club. Again.
EDIT: Formatting is wonky for some reason. I tried italicizing the title and that somehow removed it from the published version. Instead, I've put it in quotation marks.