My instinct is to put this review away and not think about it for weeks. I just want to sit with the story, let it brew and fester in my mind a little bit. But I know if I do that, I will forget everything and end up floundering around when it actually comes time to write. I might be more eloquent about the book’s larger concerns, given time (and re-reading, which I will most certainly be doing at some point), but I would be sacrificing the immediacy of all these bizarre reactions I’m currently experiencing from the book.
Which is basically: What the fuck.
It’s the future. In this imagined future (about four hundred-ish years from now), there are no allegiances to countries or races, only to hives (essentially ideological nations without fixed locations) or to boshes (not sure how to spell that because I did the audio, but they are basically chosen families that can be blood related to you or not). Gender is also not expressed publically. Everyone is “them” or “they” and uses gender neutral clothing, gender neutral language, gender neutral actions. It’s not illegal to express a gender, but it is taboo. In this future, it is also illegal to practice religion in the open, because it was decided that allegiances to religion and to nations are what cause wars and death and destruction. Instead, religion is relegated to the individual person, and each person is assigned a sensayer, essentially a person whose entire job is to shepherd people onto their own personal spiritual path. And there are criminals, like our narrator Mycroft Canner, whose punishment is not rotting in jail or execution, but to wander the Earth in service to others. These people only have food and shelter because those they serve give it to them.
Mycroft narrates in the first person, and frequently addresses the reader. He acts as a sort of reverse explainer, talking to readers of the future (ostensibly) because he is writing a history, but really writing to us in the past. So his explanations are helpful but still mysterious, because he is assuming a level of knowledge in his future readers that we don’t have yet. Due to his status as one of the most infamous (if not THE most infamous) criminals of the past several hundred years, he is uniquely placed to witness a brewing crisis of religious, social and economic proportions, and he is privy to many secrets and conspiracies due to his “unperson” status. The biggest of his secrets is a young thirteen year old boy named Bridger, who can bring inanimate objects to life.
Into this cesspool of confusion, a list is stolen from the Saneer-WeekesBooth bosh, a bosh Mycroft frequents (and outside of which, Bridger lives in a cave), and a new sensayer is assigned to the bosh, a sensayer who accidentally walks in on Bridger displaying his powers. Mycroft and Thisbe Saneer (the leader of the bosh) have no choice but to let him on Bridger’s secret. And then there’s this guy J.E.D.D. Mason, whom everyone seems to be obsessed with, and who seems to have influence with every major hive in the world. He’s put in charge of the investigation of the theft, and one of his minions is coming dangerously close to discovering Bridger’s secret.
Guys . . . this is already super complicated, and I’ve barely scratched the surface. There is so SO much here. A depth of philosophical ideas, socio-cultural exploration, mystery, murder, religion, and cool as fuck stuff I don’t wanna spoil. There’s also several mind-bending twists that basically come out of nowhere and leave you going WHAT, both of the “that’s so cool” and the “oh God I’m gonna vom” varieties.
Ada Palmer’s characters are fantastically complex. You like Mycroft; you like him even after you find out what he did. The other characters feel real also, but I’m also still figuring them out. Because here’s the thing: This book is only half the story. This story was literally split in half and published in two volumes, so it feels incomplete, and not in the way most books in a series do. So a lot of my feelings are still tentative, because I haven’t experienced the whole arc yet.
This is also one of those books that beg for a re-read. It is IMPOSSIBLE to get everything on the first go. So you have to know that going in. It takes a little bit of commitment, a willingness to be patient, maybe put some pieces together yourself. Ultimately, I found the parts of it I understood to be riveting, and I think on re-read once I know what’s actually going on (which will be after I finish the second book), I will like it even more.
I did this book on audio because I love Jefferson Mays from listening to his narration of The Expanse series. And he does an excellent job with this book. He is engaging and gives life to the characters. At times, this did help me keep going in the book when I was confused. But I’m also sure reading this in audio wasn’t the easiest choice in other ways. This is the kind of book you want to flip back pages on, double check and re-read things. And you can’t do that with audio.
All in all, I’m pretty pleased with my experience reading this book. I feel accomplished having finished it. And hopefully I’ll have a little more clarity after diving in to book two later in September. It’s sitting on my bedside table right now, being all intimidating.