Seven Surrenders Is an Unparalleled Work of Future History

Last year, Ada Palmer’s baroque science fantasy Too Like The Lightning lived up to its title, flashing onto many best-of-the-year lists with a brilliant strike, creating a lingering afterimage equally beautiful, brilliant, haunting, and complex. Now arrives the sequel, Seven Surrenders, and it is every bit as revelatory.

Set in the year 2454, Too Like The Lightning is a future history told from the perspective of Mycroft Canner, a Servicer in a seemingly utopian society who spends his days paying back his crimes through helping any who ask. Except the people he helps are those at the top—the leaders of socially constructed Hives, those with a firm grip on power despite the even distribution of wealth, medical care, longevity, and more in this world of plenty.
It is a book centered around small machinations—the tipping point conflicts, both made and natural, that could send this society into conflict not seen for generations. And that’s before we learn the true extent of Mycroft’s monstrous crimes. Meanwhile, we also follow a miraculous boy who can create anything he imagines from nothing; reading it is akin to experiencing a constant tug of war between the building this world and the personal stories of those who inhabit.

If that sounds like a lot, it’s because it is. Too Like The Lightning is an astonishing novel, but it is a damn complex one, too. Palmer teaches you how to read it as you go. Yet lest you be scared away, dear reader, trust me when I say: you have never seen science fiction like this before. The characterization and heart Palmer is able to pull off, even while confidently building a whole new world, rife with history and relationships, in the mode and style of an 19th century narrative voice, is more than a step beyond.

Too Like The Lightning 
ends on an abrupt cliffhanger, and as Seven Surrenders begins, the conspiracy surrounding Mycroft is finally coming to light, a plot between a majority of the powers-that-be to engineer discreet assassinations to keep the world from war. What follows is shattering, as everything that could possibly go wrong does just that.

From page one, Palmer keeps up a  brutal pace, as reveal after reveal shift the landscape beneath us. Even when she’s discussing global politics, Palmer’s prose holds a breathless appeal; when things happen, they happen all at once, and her writing keeps up with the frenetic pacing.

While Too Like The Lightning was firmly rooted in Mycroft’s perspective, Palmer is more liberal with her narrator’s eye this time around. While he still tells the tale, we get to learn more of key characters from the first book; their worldviews come to light, and change the way we consider all that came before. It is a lot to unpack: so much unspoken against so much that is. The characters, no matter the setting, are complex, difficult, ambitious, and more, as complicated as anyone living. As they each contemplate what they would do to preserve either their world or its future, the answers they come to are devastating.

If the first book spent time dissecting various schools of philosophical thought, the focus of Seven Surrenders is faith and religion. Two of the characters are nigh-divine: Bridger, who can make anything from nothing, and J.E.D.D. Mason, whose alien detachment and intellect can cut a man’s soul to shreds in moments. These two engage in the most long-distance of battles, observing and contemplating, as Bridger tries to be what everyone thinks he should be, and Mason does his best to not to become the thing everyone fears he may become. While Bridger has no interest in divinity, Mason is distracted by his potential godhood, for surely no human is something is his equal.

This struggle embodies what I love so much about this series: that there are matters of weight beyond the wars and conflict that define so much of science fiction, that deeper than any given event is the hope that someday we’ll truly come to understand ourselves, and what we’re here to do. Between Bridger and Mason, Palmer considers many solutions; the ramifications of each drive this story forward.

And nothing will prepare you for the ending. Palmer pulls every rug out from under you; I was left on the bare floor, with tears in my eyes, wondering what the future could possibly hold. To spoil it would be sacrilegious, but every decision makes sense, and she pulls it off with heartbreaking style.

With beautiful, anachronistic language, focused investigations into the heart of humanity, and the myriad of questions she asks of society, Palmer is well on her way to becoming one of the most ambitious science fiction writers of our time. The Terra Ignota series does so many wonderful things for the genre, and if Seven Surrenders is any indication, she will continue to probe the human mind, spirit, and soul as she pushes forward into the next book in a planned quartet. I can’t wait to see more of this future.

Seven Surrenders is available March 7.

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