War is coming.
That’s the plot premise of Seven Surrenders (2017), the second book in Ada Palmer’s TERRA IGNOTA series. War is coming, and the many characters in this intricate tapestry of a series can’t stop it. Along the ways alliances are broken, people are betrayed, and secrets revealed.
Jason reviewed the first book in this series, Too Like the Lightning.
Before I start the actual review, I have a couple of suggestions. Read Too Like the Lightning before you read Seven Surrenders. Just as Too Like the Lightning was not a stand-alone, you cannot pick up Seven Surrenders cold and figure out what’s going on.
One more thing: In Too Like the Lightning, bookmark the pages where the first “seven-ten” list appears, and then bookmark Sugiyama’s “original” list. It helps to be able to refer back to these as the characters of the huge cast begin to come onstage. In general, it wouldn’t hurt to Google Diderot, Voltaire, Hobbes and de Sade before you plunge into these books. Their Wikipedia pages should be enough to get you through unless, of course, you studied the Enlightenment in college, in which case you’ll be fine.
I’m going to provide a recap of Too Like the Lightning. These facts should not be spoilers since they are included in the jacket blurbs, but I do discuss the plot.
The TERRA IGNOTA series takes place on 25th century Earth. Earth has eliminated geographic nations in favor of jurisdictions called “Hives,” and anyone can join any Hive, or change Hives, at will. There are seven Hives plus a part of the population that is Hiveless. Technology is mostly advanced far beyond ours, with genetic manipulation, vast leaps in medical and surgical procedures, trackers that allow massive computer systems to track every individual on the planet, and flying cars.
Earth has not had a war in nearly three hundred years. No one goes without food or medical attention and most people only have to work twenty hours a week. The nuclear family has evolved into a household-of-choice called a bash; people in a bash may or may not be related to each other genetically but they function as a family. Three hundred years earlier, when the Hive system was being formulated after the end of the Church Wars, organized religion was banned and the use of gendered language or “gender” as a concept was strongly discouraged, because the leaders thought these were two concepts that led to inequity, violence and war.
Unfortunately, things are not quite as good as that paragraph makes it sound. For a very long time, the leaders of certain Hives have engaged in precise assassinations in order to avoid the kinds of political conflict that would lead to war. This had gone undiscovered since all the deaths look like accidents or suicides — undiscovered, that is, until now. At the end of Too Like the Lightning, an investigator has uncovered the murders and the complicity of nearly every Hive leader.
Seven Surrenders continues the narrative of Mycroft Canner, a character in a unique position in the story: he is the center of a web of information. Mycroft, who has been ordered to write this narrative, insists he has no power and he is not the protagonist in the story, but Mycroft is an unreliable narrator. As with Too Like the Lightning, Mycroft provides narratives from other points of view because he is able to listen in on people’s trackers. There is yet another layer of mediation between the reader and the story, an unnamed editorial voice called A9 who translates most of the Latin that one Hive insists on using, and provides updates. All of this is to remind us that we are reading a history, a construct, and that even now we may not be learning what actually happened.
Despite the uproar over the manipulations the Hives have engaged in, much of Seven Surrenders still revolves around a pair of enigmatic characters; J.E.D.D. Mason and a boy named Bridger. Seven Surrenders spends quite a bit of time in the beginning at the “gender brothel” of the mysterious Madame, where all the sex workers wear gendered 18th century costumes and use of “he” and “she” is encouraged. The mystery of one character’s parentage is revealed in an elaborate fashion that would fit almost perfectly into 18th century fiction. It’s a fine, dramatic scene, but two of these characters came out of nowhere for me, and honestly I don’t know, yet, how much I care. The parentage of the character of Carlyle matters because Carlyle may be a legitimate heir to one of the Hives. Other than that, this denouement felt baroque for the sake of being baroque.
At the end of Seven Surrenders, the nature of J.E.D.D. Mason is revealed, Bridger makes a shocking decision, and Mycroft’s heart is broken.
Palmer has built an interesting world and designed an intricately plotted work in this elaborate story. She pays homage to the Enlightenment philosophers and to the fiction of that time with her choice of language and novelistic conventions. My favorite of these is the “gentle reader” concept. Mycroft frequently addresses the Reader directly. Often, the Reader addresses him back. It’s a nice metafictional touch. Palmer writes unbelievable scenes, like the declamation/duel scene between a charismatic celebrity named Sniper and the sadistic, loyal “confessor” to J.E.D.D. Mason, Dominic. (Yes, religion is banned. And yes, I wrote confessor.) Sniper has just done a terrible thing on camera — cameras controlled by Sniper — and as Sniper and Dominic trade sword strokes on the rooftops, Sniper lectures the crowd below, info-dumping important facts while dodging — swish! — thrusts by Dominic, and parrying — thwack! — with perfect ease. Above them, flying cars, controlled by Sniper, fill the sky. It’s absurd, it’s breathtaking and, except for the flying cars, could have fit right into Les Liaisons Dangereuses by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos.
Because the writing is so careful, I was distracted and irritated in the middle of this book by Palmer’s constant use of speech tags. Characters don’t say a thing; they smile it, they contradict it, they lecture it. These built up steadily and soon became a distraction.
As other reviews have noted, these are philosophical novels, concerned less with individuals than with the whys and hows of things. Palmer’s reasons for the genesis of a war works as the underpinning of this story. I think it ignores some historical conflicts, personally, but I can suspend disbelief for the purposes of the story. For the most part, I’m willing to accept her world, but I think there are a couple of holes. One is simply the argument about what starts wars. One is economic: one Hive provides “orphanages and charities;” it’s not clear to me why very many of those would even be needed. It’s not clear whether each Hive has its own currency, or if there is a global currency. Normally I wouldn’t care, but Mycroft Canner isn’t sipping soup with a family of weavers; he hangs out with the leaders of the world’s governments, and if there isn’t really prosperity for everyone, we ought to know why.
Palmer does an excellent job with the issues of religion and sex, of showing that driving something underground does not lessen its power.
I have just started The Will to Battle, and I will check back with you all when I’m finished. I can recommend the first two books for people comfortable committing to a long, complex, intellectual and philosophical work.