Fiction Reviews

The Will to Battle

(2017) Ada Palmer, Head of Zeus, £20, hrdbk, 351pp, ISBN 978-1-786-69956-5


The first word in this ambitious novel is ‘hubris’, and that’s really tempting fate.  I have been impressed with the scope, ideas and ambitions of the previous volumes, less so by the prose style and lack of real emotional engagement, so hubris seems an appropriate carrot to dangle.

This is the third book in the 'Terra Ignota' series, and the one where the plot seems to really come alive.  We are still following flawed hero Mycroft Canner as he meanders his way through the power struggles which begin to tear apart his rather quirky 25th Century world, leading to a series of philosophical set pieces about the nature of this world and the forces that drive it.

The delicate balance of power in this world is maintained through selective assassination of people who could upset the equilibrium, to ensure that none of the seven ruling ‘Hives’ can dominate the others. The result has been centuries of peace. But in the preceding book Seven Surrenders we learn that three of the Hives have been manipulating the others.  Once their methods became clear, things start to disintegrate.

The Will to Battle is a complicated book in a complex series: like the others it’s best read slowly.  That’s partly due to the deliberately arcane language and style quirks, and partly due to the richness of the book’s conceptual framework and philosophical musings.  War is in the air, and the various factions in this society prepare for it, and you get the impression that many of them are distinctly looking forward to it, as if by rediscovering conflict they are rediscovering their humanity.  Ah, but bad things happen, with more on the way.

This book is full of larger than life characters.  I am particularly taken with J.E.D.D. Mason, who turns out to be a godlike figure from another universe, looking on at the chaos rapidly developing.  There is a reincarnated version of Achilles here too, causing mayhem.  But entertaining though these characters are and conceptually satisfying, they’re not that relatable; I found it hard to connect with any character enough to care about their fate.  But that is probably just me trying to view this story as a traditional narrative, something I suspect it never aspires to be.

Hubris?  Judge the series, not just the third part.  The narrative voice shifts towards the end, and so does our perspective, heading for something darker.  Which sets book four up nicely.

Mark Bilsborough

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