(2017) Ada Palmer, Head of Zeus, £20, hrdbk, 365pp, ISBN 978-1-786-69952-7
This is the second book in Palmer’s 'Terra Ignota' series and it carries on just about where the last novel finished off, with ex-convict/assassin Mycroft Canner still at the centre of keeping the fragile peace between the seven rival ‘Hives’ that rule 24th century Earth in a delicate power balance.
The balance is in jeopardy thanks to a game-changing child with abilities: Bridger, who can make things real just by imagining them. The first person narrator (Canner) guides us through, unreliably, the events which appear to lead, inevitably, to war.
These books have a style all of their own, but if I were to try and stab a comparison at them I’d say look for a cross between Suzanna (Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell) Clarke and Nathaniel Hawthorne, with a dash of David (The Bone Clocks) Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas thrown in; in other words, faux-old. That’s deliberate, because the society Palmer’s constructed is backward-looking weird, but some of its quirks make the text a struggle: for instance, in this society gendered pronouns are discouraged, so he and she become ‘they’. This is in no way consistent, though, so it is sometimes difficult to tell if you are hearing about a person or a group. It was a cute but annoying quirk in book one, just about tolerable because of its originality. By book two though it’s still annoying but, sadly, neither cute nor original. That’s a minor quibble though.
Mycroft Canner is a ‘servicer’, which involves doing whatever the ruling families want, in return for his freedom, as penance for his former crimes (mass murder). He is not really free, and neither is anyone in this society of total freedom but constant monitoring. But he does find himself (‘themselves’) at the fulcrum of events, connected to everyone and everything that matters, and that means we get an insight on what made this society, what makes it tick, and what happens when it begins to fall apart.
This story is ambitious yet incomplete. It’s a setup novel half way through something larger, beginning with a cliff hanger and ending with anticipation. Not to be read without reading Too Like the Lightning first, and definitely not to be read unless you’re ready for something new and fresh.
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