Unlike winter in George R.R. Martin’s SONG OF ICE AND FIRE series, the long-dreaded war in Ada Palmer’s TERRA IGNOTA finally does show up, or appears to, at the end of Book Three, 2017’s The Will to Battle. The war starts in the final six or seven pages of the book.
This doesn’t mean nothing happens in the 344 pages leading up to the war. In The Will to Battle, the avatar of the Greek warrior Achilles appears; the role, if not the identity, of the editor designated as A9 is revealed; the various Hives grapple with their governance structures and their identities. Sniper is abducted; J.E.D.D. Martin steps onto the world stage in a leading role rather than a supporting one; and Mycroft, our faithful if completely unreliable narrator, converses with dead people. Along the way, we observe the opening ceremonies of a future Olympics.
The philosophical question posed in Seven Surrenders, “Would you destroy a better world to save this one?” is still very much in play.
Achilles, considered the ultimate warrior, an expert on all things military, is courted by each of the seven Hives to help them prepare for war. The world waits, biting its fingernails, as tensions escalate. Unfortunately, while Achilles is probably an awesome fighter (this Achilles is more than just the ancient Greek fighter; he is the avatar of all warriors), he’s about as good at predicting war as your average TV meteorologist is at predicting whether it will rain on the Saturday you’ve chosen for your family reunion picnic. This leads to a number of exchanges, that, distilled for time and length purposes, go like this:
Government Leader: Achilles, is this event the start of the war?
Achilles, Expert on All Things Military: Dunno. It might be.
(Some time later:)
A Different Government Leader: Achilles, is this the start of the war?
Achilles, EOATM: Dunno. It might be.
(Still some more time later:)
Yet a Different Government Leader: Achilles, could this event be the start of the war?
Achilles, EOATM: Dunno. It might be.
A few other plot developments in The Will to Battle include:
— We find out what Cato Weeksbooth has been up to since he was arrested in Seven Surrenders
— Thisbe nails an audition
— It appears that someone besides Mycroft interacts with Saladin
— A villain reappears
— Madame agrees to a change in status
— The Utopians take extraordinary steps
For readers of the first two books, that should be enough to make you read this one (you knew you were going to anyway) without creating too many spoilers. You will read it and then, like me, you will put in on your shelf instead of in the “donate” stack because you know you will have to re-read it when Book Four, Perhaps the Stars, is released (currently slated for 2019).
Quibbles? I have some. For most, I’m going to wait until Perhaps the Stars comes out, because my questions or outright bafflement may be addressed there. One I will mention though; at the end of The Will to Battle there is an attack on a city. I think this city got fleeting mention, maybe one sentence, six hundred pages ago in Too Like the Lightning. I had forgotten it; I didn’t know where it was, and its location is crucial. Suddenly, after the attack, we get a discourse about this city. This could have been foreshadowed better.
(An aside: Don’t think, Ada Palmer, that I didn’t see through your clever trick to get us to go all the way back to Seven Surrenders and re-read Sniper’s chapter for clues. I am immune to your diabolical genius! Besides, I already had a sticky-note on that chapter so it was easy to go back. Easy, I tell you! Hahaha! Ha ha.)
I’m going to devote the rest of this review to a concept that I love and I haven’t seen addressed in too many other reviews of this series; the vocateur or “vokker” culture. The world of TERRA IGNOTA is a utopia, and one aspect of this utopia is that humans need to do very little work. A standard work week is twenty hours. We aren’t told why this is. I presume enhanced technology is part of it and I assume a lot of it is artificial; that work weeks are limited to twenty hours so that more people can have jobs to go to. Remember that we don’t know how food is grown or delivered in this society, we don’t see water systems, waste systems, educational or health systems, and it’s a fair assumption that much of that is automated. We do see Servicers cleaning a sewer in the first book, but that looks more like punishment or shaming than actual necessary work. People are encouraged to fill their spare time with hobbies.
Some people, though, love what they do. They have a vocation. These people often work far more than twenty hours a week and they are called vocateurs or vokkers for short. Many of them are innovators. Cato Weeksbooth, the “fake mad scientist” with his love of the children’s science program he runs, is a vocatuer. His bash-mate or ba’sib Thisbe is a vocatuer. Probably all of the Olympic athletes are vocatuers. One Hive, the Utopians, has made commitment to work one loves its guiding principle; it’s the “vokker Hive.” It’s no accident that Utopia seems to be the only Hive whose goals are centered in the future, rather than the present.
The difference between a hobby and a vocation seems strictly to be the level of commitment. When you join the Utopian Hive you sign a declaration that you will “commit the full produce of my labors to our collective effort to redirect the path of human life away from death and toward the stars.” Mycroft points out that the Utopians consider a light but pleasant romance novel life-affirming, but the Utopians require commitment that most people are unwilling or unable to make. They do not ignore balance, but there is a thought here about elevating the creative impulse and honoring it. It’s a lot to think about. Since the Utopians attract inventors, artists, tinkerers and innovators, they are the Hive with the most advanced technology, things that border on magic if you use the Arthur C. Clarke definition. The Utopians acknowledge this by calling some of their tools “spells” and “charms.” It’s interesting that the Utopians are the most advanced, yet the smallest, and in many ways the most vulnerable Hive. The Utopians are the Cool Kids with the Cool Toys, and they are the most resented. The choice they make at the end of The Will to Battle results in serious repercussions for Utopians. Did the Utopians abandon their own values? Mycroft thinks so, and I don’t. I eagerly wait to see how Palmer advances this, how, in particular, the Utopians’ story ends.
I’m not sure to whom this review is directed. If you have read the first two books, you will probably read this one. If you gave up halfway through one of the previous books, this review won’t necessarily make you go back and restart. If you haven’t read the previous two, you won’t start here. While I’m not sure I could sign the Utopian pledge, maybe I’m just being a vokker reviewer. Anyway, Palmer is still keeping it interesting.