Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders classifies as science fiction, but its wide breadth of references and well-tangled plot make it a book many might enjoy.
It’s hard to really say what Ada Palmer’s Seven Surrenders is about in one sentence. The same is true of the first book, Too Like the Lightning. Sure, on its face it’s about a world in which nations have been replaced with Hives, and how those Hives have avoided war for hundreds of years. On another level, it’s about gender and performances thereof. On the third, it’s about the ideas of religion and what happens when it’s sort-of-but-not-really-banned. The fourth practically requires a passing familiarity with Homer, philosophy, probably the majority of the world religions, the Enlightenment, and more. We could go on, really, but we’ll stop here.
Nevertheless, we shall endeavor to explain what we like and don’t like about this book, and give it a very solid 3/5 stars, based on its general inventiveness.
Palmer has built an extremely complex world, and she has effectively managed to do it without much in the way of info dumping. Here and there, her (general) narrator, Mycroft Canner, will stop and address the reader, dropping more information. For the most part, though, a reader will have to pay attention and put the pieces together themselves.
That extends to the plot of this novel, by the way. Again, with less than 400 pages, this book seems like one that could be read over a weekend for a quick reader. It almost demands to be savored and thought over instead, possibly with a phone or computer close at hand to look up those names dropped which a reader may not recognize. Palmer does include some brief allusions and explanations in the text, and you can probably muddle along with just them, but the more you’re familiar, the more you’re likely to pick up what she’s putting down.
Additionally, it does address some interesting conceptions on the nature of gender as it’s been constructed. Mycroft himself apologizes for using masculine and feminine pronouns, but can and does switch them for specific characters. (Of course, he also has to address the reader when he does it.)
And that’s where we get to the not-so-good. Palmer’s biography on the back flap of this book’s dust jacket states she’s a professor at the University of Chicago, and it shows. The prose here is often dense, and, as I mentioned earlier, it practically requires a passing familiarity with a wide amount of concepts.
Although I understand what she’s trying to imitate — earlier iterations of the novel and the art of the story in general, since protestations about the skill of the storyteller are practically ancient — it doesn’t mean I personally enjoyed every single one of the interruptions made by her narrator to address me and every reader. In particular, I often wasn’t sure about how often the prose imagined conversations between the reader and Mycroft. More often than note, I didn’t find myself aligning with the reader’s imagined protests or with Mycroft, either.
Seven Surrenders and Too Like the Lightning are practically meant for readers of science fiction who like it with a side of actually musing on more than just how humanity can make things go faster and reach space. It’s definitely science fiction. There’s no getting around that. However, at the same time, yours truly feels certain aspects could have been handled better.
You can find Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders at your bookseller of choice.