Well, my first review of the year, and I have picked a bit of a doozy! Not only is this book series quite unlike anything else I have read, I’m starting my review with book three of four. (But, this is the first book I’ve finished reading this year, so I went with it.) I’m going to have to try to do my best to tiptoe around the spoilers while still giving some kind of picture as to what this series is about. Let’s see how that goes:
I first came across Ala Palmer’s Terra Ignota series when I was reviewing the Hugo Awards last year. I don’t think I’ve ever read anything quite like it. The first book was unbelievably dense, with detailed world building and a highly political, intricate plot. The series is set in a future where concepts like nation-states, traditional families and organised religion are seen as dated. Instead, people join Hives, communities based around philosophical ideas; families are replaced by Bashes, which sort of operate like student share houses; and trained professionals known as Sensayers deal with people’s individual spiritual needs. This remodelled, not quite Utopian society has been operating for close to 300 years without any massive global conflicts.
But as the previous two books in the series, Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders demonstrated, things really aren’t that idyllic behind the scenes. As it turns out, global leaders are not at all living up to society’s high minded ideals, and there are some very ugly measures being undertaken to try and keep the world at peace. The Will to Battle deals with the aftermath of both the collusion and nepotism between the world’s elites, along with one of the more sinister peace-keeping machinations, being made public. Even the secular nature of society is threatened when a large proportion of the population are convinced they witnessed a miracle. (It doesn’t help that one character with a particularly high public profile has decided to declare that they’re actually a god-like being.) As suggested by the title, war lines between the hives are being drawn, and with a society that hasn’t seen an all-out war in centuries, it’s difficult to predict the outcome – not just for the characters, but the reader as well.
Ada Palmer’s writing style is highly indulgent. As it turns out, she’s a professor of history and philosophy, and I get the impression she really, really takes pleasure in drawing heavily from both. I think this goes some way into grounding the Hives – I can look at the philosophies of each and can imagine how such groups could form from parts of our current society. But while I might be familiar enough to recognise the rough philosophies of Voltaire and Hobbes (like, wiki-knowledge level), I don’t really have a deep understanding of either, and I can’t fight the feeling that there are parts of the series that are flying over my head. There’s no holding back to accommodate the reader, and I think this contributes to the books’ dense feel. I could see this being off-putting to some people, but it might make others want to go back and re-read it multiple times to pick up what they might have missed.
A lot of these indulgences are explained away as eccentricities of the narrator Mycroft Canner. Mycroft is a convicted criminal, undergoing some form of repentance by serving the public. In Mycroft’s case, he serves his sentence by acting as an aid to some of the world’s most powerful people.
Mycroft is a compelling narrator, but I don’t exactly find him likeable. He likes to barge through the fourth wall to address the reader directly, and when doing so usually afflicts a sort of cringing, apologetic tone that puts in mind a subservient dog showing its belly. But I got the impression it’s not sincere. For example, he apologises profusely to you, the reader (and he even assigns you dialogue in the process) for misgendering people in his mostly gender-blind society. And then he keeps on doing it. He continues to bringing up why he thinks this is even necessary, and re-apologising, but keeps at it. This same kind of attitude also appears whenever he speaks of his past crimes – he goes on and on to the reader about how he’s ever so sorry that he did it, but will happily nitpick with other characters on the details of what happened. This left me feeling there’s part of him that still feels rather prideful about his actions.
Mycroft ’s never been a truly reliable narrator, and he only gets worse in The Will to Battle. I got the impression that the stress of the world’s events has started to fray him around the edges. Not only does he continue to try and assign the reader dialogue like in previous books, he then tries to get you into an imaginary conversation with Thomas Hobbs. There are times where you find him talking about events at one time at one location and then discover that you’ve melded into a different event at a different time, and you’re not sure where he’s made the transition. And when he starts talking to a character who’s very likely dead, you have to wonder if he’s hallucinating. The impression that Mycroft is starting to lose his grip on reality is well conveyed, but it does come at a sacrifice to the narrative. He’s the one trying to tell the story. And if he’s confused, the reader is not likely to be much better off. As mentioned previously, this series is already rather dense, and this added confusion makes The Will to Battle a bit difficult to follow, especially if you’re at the middle and haven’t yet realised just how badly Mycroft has deteriorated.
Personally, I’m not sure if The Will to Battle is quite as strong as the previous two books, and this is mostly due to it having a more bogged down narrative. On the positive side, there are some fantastic additions to the world-building here, especially with regards to the lives of the Utopian hive, and those that have decided to remain hive-less. And I’m still hugely anticipating how things are going to resolve themselves in the final book. Perhaps we’ll get a definitive answer on who the true antagonist is.
I really hope more people start picking up this series. It’s just begging for a book club involving long discussions over a good drink or two