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Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota Series #1)

Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota Series #1)

by Ada Palmer
Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota Series #1)

Too Like the Lightning (Terra Ignota Series #1)

by Ada Palmer


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From the winner of the 2017 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer, Ada Palmer's 2017 Compton Crook Award-winning political science fiction, Too Like the Lightning, ventures into a human future of extraordinary originality

Mycroft Canner is a convict. For his crimes he is required, as is the custom of the 25th century, to wander the world being as useful as he can to all he meets. Carlyle Foster is a sensayer—a spiritual counselor in a world that has outlawed the public practice of religion, but which also knows that the inner lives of humans cannot be wished away.

The world into which Mycroft and Carlyle have been born is as strange to our 21st-century eyes as ours would be to a native of the 1500s. It is a hard-won utopia built on technologically-generated abundance, and also on complex and mandatory systems of labelling all public writing and speech. What seem to us normal gender distinctions are now distinctly taboo in most social situations. And most of the world's population is affiliated with globe-girdling clans of the like-minded, whose endless economic and cultural competion is carefully managed by central planners of inestimable subtlety. To us it seems like a mad combination of heaven and hell. To them, it seems like normal life.

And in this world, Mycroft and Carlyle have stumbled on the wild card that may destablize the system: the boy Bridger, who can effortlessly make his wishes come true. Who can, it would seem, bring inanimate objects to life...

Terra Ignota
1. Too Like the Lightning
2. Seven Surrenders
3. The Will to Battle

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780765378019
Publisher: Tor Publishing Group
Publication date: 01/24/2017
Series: Terra Ignota Series , #1
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 448
Sales rank: 150,045
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

ADA PALMER is a professor in the history department of the University of Chicago, specializing in Renaissance history and the history of ideas. Her first nonfiction book, Reading Lucretius in the Renaissance, was published in 2014 by Harvard University Press. She is also a composer of folk and Renaissance-tinged a capella music, most of which she performs with the group Sassafrass. Her personal site is at, and she writes about history for a popular audience at and about SF and fantasy-related matters at

The third book of her Terra Ignota series, The Will to Battle, will be released December 2017.

Read an Excerpt

Too Like the Lightning

Terra Ignota, Book I

By Ada Palmer, Patrick Nielsen Hayden

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2016 Ada Palmer
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4668-5874-9


A Prayer to the Reader

You will criticize me, reader, for writing in a style six hundred years removed from the events I describe, but you came to me for explanation of those days of transformation which left your world the world it is, and since it was the philosophy of the Eighteenth Century, heavy with optimism and ambition, whose abrupt revival birthed the recent revolution, so it is only in the language of the Enlightenment, rich with opinion and sentiment, that those days can be described. You must forgive me my 'thee's and 'thou's and 'he's and 'she's, my lack of modern words and modern objectivity. It will be hard at first, but whether you are my contemporary still awed by the new order, or an historian gazing back at my Twenty-Fifth Century as remotely as I gaze back on the Eighteenth, you will find yourself more fluent in the language of the past than you imagined; we all are.

I wondered once why authors of ancient days so often prostrate themselves before their audience, apologize, beg favors, pray to the reader as to an Emperor as they explain their faults and failings; yet, with my work barely begun, I find myself already in need of such obsequies. If I am properly to follow the style I have chosen, I must, at the book's outset, describe myself, my background and qualifications, and tell you by what chance or Providence it is that the answers you seek are in my hands. I beg you, gentle reader, master, tyrant, grant me the privilege of silence on this count. Those of you who know the name of Mycroft Canner may now set this book aside. Those who do not, I beg you, let me make you trust me for a few dozen pages, since the tale will give you time enough to hate me in its own right.


A Boy and His God

We begin on the morning of March the twenty-third in the year twenty-four fifty-four. Carlyle Foster had risen full of strength that day, for March the twenty-third was the Feast of St. Turibius, a day on which men had honored their Creator in ages past, and still do today. He was not yet thirty, European enough in blood to be almost blond, his hair overgrown down to his shoulders, and his body gaunt as if he was too occupied with life to feed himself. He wore practical shoes and a Cousin's loose but comfortable wrap, gray-green that morning, but the only clothing item given any care was his long sensayer's scarf of age-grayed wool, which he believed had once belonged to the great Sensayers' Conclave reformer Fisher G. Gurai — one of many lies in which Carlyle daily wrapped himself.

Following his parishioner's instructions, Carlyle bade the car touch down, not on the high drawbridgelike walkway which led to the main door of the shimmering glass bash'house, but by the narrow maintenance stairs beside it. These slanted their way down into the little man-made canyon which separated this row of bash'houses from the next, like a deep, dry moat. The bottom was choked with wildflowers and seed-heavy grasses, tousled by the foraging of countless birds, and here, in the shadow of the bridge, lay Thisbe's door, too unimportant even for a bell.

He knocked.

"Who is it?" she called from within.

"Carlyle Foster."


"Carlyle Foster. I'm your new sensayer. We have an appointment."

"Oh, right, I ..." Thisbe's words limped half-muted through the door. "I called to cancel. We've had a security thing ... problem ... breach."

"I didn't get any message."

"Now isn't a good time!"

Carlyle's smile was gentle as a mother's whose child hides behind her knees on the first day of kindergarten. "I knew your previous sensayer very well. We're all saddened by their loss."

"Yes. Very tragic, they ... Shhhh! Will you hold still?"

"Are you all right in there?"

"Fine! Fine."

Perhaps the sensayer could make out traces of other voices through the door now, soft but fierce, or perhaps he heard nothing, but sensed the lie in her voice.

"Do you need help?" he asked.

"No! No. Come back later. I ..."

More voices rose now, clearer, voices of men, soft as whispers but urgent as screams.

"Pointer! Stay with me! Stay with me! Breathe!"

"Too late, Major."

"He's dead."

The door could not hope to stifle mourning, a small child's sobs, piercing as a spear. Carlyle sprang to action, no longer a sensayer but a human being ready to help another in distress. He pounded the door with hands unused to forming fists, and tried the lock which he knew would not succumb to his unpracticed strength. Those who deny Providence may blame the dog within, which, in its frenzy, probably passed close enough to activate the door.

I know what Carlyle saw as the door opened. Thisbe first, barefoot and in yesterday's clothes, scribbling madly on a scrap of paper on the haste-cleared tabletop, with the remnants of work and breakfast scattered on the floor. Eleven men stood on that table, battered men, strong, hard-boned and hard-faced as if reared in a harder age, and each five centimeters tall. They wore tiny army uniforms of green or sand brown, not the elegance of old Europe but the utility of the World Wars, all grunge and daily wear. Three of them were bleeding, paint-bright red pooling on the tabletop, as appalling as a pet mouse's wound, when each lost drop would be half a liter to you. One was not merely bleeding.

Have you never watched a death, reader? In slow cases like blood loss it is not so much a moment as a stretch of ambiguity — one breath leaves and you wait uncertain for the next: was that the last? One more? Two more? A final twitch? It takes so long for cheeks to slacken and the stink of relaxing bowels to escape the clothes that you can't be certain Death has visited until the moment is well past. Not so here. Before Carlyle's eyes the last breath left the soldier, and with it softness and color, the red of blood, the peach of skin, all faded to green as the tiny corpse reverted into a plastic toy soldier, complete with stand. Cowering beneath the table, our protagonist sobbed and screamed.

Bridger's is not the name that brought you to me. Just as the most persuasive tongue could never convince the learned crowds of 1700 that the young wordsmith calling himself Voltaire would overshadow all the royal dynasties of Europe, so I shall never convince you, reader, that this boy, not the heads of state whom I shall introduce in time, but Bridger, the thirteen-year-old hugging his knees here beneath Thisbe's table, he made the future in which you now live.

"Ready!" Thisbe rolled her drawing up into a tube and thrust it down for the boy to take. Might she have hesitated, I wonder, had she realized that an intruder watched? "Bridger, it's time. Bridger?" Imagine another new voice here, at home in crisis, commanding without awe, a grandfather's voice, stronger, a veteran's voice. Carlyle had never heard such a voice before, child of peace and plenty as he was. He had never heard it, nor have his parents, nor his parents' parents in these three centuries of peace. "Act, son, now, or grief will swallow up your chance to help the others."

Bridger reached from beneath the table and touched the paper with his child's fingers, too wide and short, like a clay man not yet perfected by his sculptor. In that instant, without sound or light or any puff of melodrama's smoke, the paper tube transformed to glass, the doodles to a label, and a purple scribble to the pigment of a liquid bubbling within. Thisbe popped the cork, which had been no more than cross-hatching moments before, and poured the potion over the tiny soldiers. As the fluid washed over the injured, their wounds peeled away like old paint, leaving the soldiers clean and healed.

Thou too, Mycroft Canner? you cry, indignant reader. Thou too maintainest this fantasy, repeated by too many mouths already? As poor a guide as thou art, I had hoped thou wouldst at least present me facts, not lunacy. How can your servant answer you, good master? I shall not convince you — though you have seen the miracle almost firsthand — I shall never convince you that Bridger's powers were real. Nor shall I try. You demand the truth, and I have no truth to offer but what I believe. You have no obligation to believe with me, and can dismiss your flawed guide, and Bridger with me, at the journey's end. But while I am your guide, indulge me, pray, as you indulge a child who will not rest until you pretend you too believe in the monsters under the bed. Call it a madness — I am easy to call mad.

Carlyle did not have the luxury of disbelief. He saw the transformation, as real as the page before you, impossible and undeniable. Imagine the priests of Pharaoh when Moses's snake swallowed their own, a slave god defeating the beast-headed lords of death and resurrection which had made Egypt the greatest empire in human memory — those priests' expressions in the moment of their pantheon's surrender might have been a match for Carlyle's. I wish I knew what he said, a word, a prayer, a groan, but those who were there — the Major, Thisbe, Bridger — none could tell me, since they drowned his answer with their own instant scream. "Mycroft!"

I took the stairs in seconds, and the sensayer in less time, pinning him to the floor, with my fingers pinching his trachea so he could neither breathe nor speak. "What happened?" I panted.

"That's our new sensayer," Thisbe answered fastest. "We had an appointment, but Bridger ... and then the door opened and they saw ... everything. Mycroft, the sensayer saw everything." Now she raised her hand to the tracker at her ear, which beeped with her brother Ockham's call from upstairs. "¡No! ¡Don't come down!" she snapped in Spanish to the microphone. "¿What? Everything's fine ... No, I just spilled some nasty perfumes all over the rug, you don't want to come down here ... No, nothing to do with that ... I'm fine, really ..."

While Thisbe spun her lies, I leaned low enough over my prisoner to taste his first breath as I eased up on his throat. "I'm not going to hurt you. In a moment your tracker will ask if you're all right. If you signal back that everything is fine then I'll answer your questions, but if you call for help, then the child, the soldiers, and myself will be gone before anyone arrives, and you will never find us. Clear?"

"Don't bother, Mycroft." Thisbe made for her closet. "Just hold them down. I still have some of those memory-erasing pills, remember the blue ones?"

"No!" I cried, feeling my prisoner shudder with the same objection. "Thisbe, this is a sensayer."

She squinted at the scarf fraying about Carlyle's shoulders. "We don't need a can of worms right now. Ockham says there's a polylaw upstairs, a Mason."

"Sensayers live for metaphysics, Thisbe, it's what they are. How would you feel if someone erased your memory of the most important thing that ever happened to you?"

Thisbe did not like my tone, and I would not have braved her anger for a lesser creature than a sensayer. I wonder, reader, which folk etymology you believe. Is 'sensayer' a perversion of the nonexistent Latin verb senseo? Of 'soothsayer,' with 'sooth' turned into 'sense'? Of sensei, the honorific Japan grants to teachers, doctors, and the wise? I have researched the question myself, but founder Mertice McKay left posterity no notes when she created the term — she had no time to, working in the rush of the 2140s, as society's wrath swept through after the Church War, banning religious houses, meetings, proselytizing, and, in her eyes, threatening to abolish even the word God. The laws are real still, reader. Just as three unrelated women living in the same house was once, in some places, legally a brothel, three people in a room talking about religion was then, as now, a "Church meeting," and subject to harsh penalties, not in the laws of one or two Hives but even in the codes of Romanova. What terrible silence McKay foresaw: a man afraid to ask his lover whether he too hoped for a hereafter, parents afraid to answer when their children asked, "Who made the world?" With what desperation McKay screamed to those with the power to stop it, "Humanity cannot live without these questions! Let us create a new creature! Not a preacher, but a teacher, who hears a parishioner's questions and presents the answers of all the faiths and sects of history, Christians and pagans, Muslims and atheists, all equal. With this new creature as his guide, let each man pick through the fruits of all theologies and anti-theologies, and make from them his own system, to test, improve, and lean on all the years of his long life. If early opponents of the Christian Reformation feared that Protestants would invent as many Christianities as there were Christians, let this new creature help us create as many religions as there are human beings!" So she cried. You will forgive her, reader, if, in her fervor, she did not pause to diagram the derivation of this new creature's name.

"Mycroft's right." It was the veteran's voice that saved us. From where I held him, Carlyle could probably just see the tiny torso leaning over the table's edge, like a scout over a cliff. "We've been saying it's high time Bridger met more people, and honestly, Thisbe, does anyone on Earth need a sensayer as much as we do?"

Cheers rose from the other soldiers on the tabletop.

"The Major's right!"

"About time we found ourselves some kind of damned priest."

"Past time!"

I leaned closer to my prisoner. "Cancel the help signal, or we do this Thisbe's way."

The police insist that I add a disclaimer, reminding you not to do what Carlyle did. When your tracker earpiece detects a sudden jump in heartbeat or adrenaline it calls help automatically unless you signal all clear, so if there is danger, an assailant, even if you're immobilized, help will still come. Last year there were a hundred and eighteen slayings and nearly a thousand sexual assaults enabled by victims being convinced to cancel the help signal for one reason or another. Carlyle made the right choice canceling his call because God matters more to him than life or chastity, and because I meant him no real harm. The same will likely not be true for you.

"Done," he mouthed.

I released my prisoner and backed away, my hands where he could see them, my posture slack, my eyes subserviently on the floor. I dared not even glance up to examine him for insignia beyond his Cousin's wrap and sensayer's scarf, since, in that moment when he could have called anew for the police, the only thing that mattered was convincing him I posed no threat.

"What's your name, priest?" It was the Major who called down to the sensayer from the tabletop, his tiny voice warm as a grandfather's.

"Carlyle Foster."

"A good name," the soldier answered. "People call me the Major. These men are called Aimer, Looker, Crawler, Medic, Stander Yellow, Stander Green, Croucher, Nogun, Nostand, and back there the late Private Pointer." He nodded over his shoulder at the plastic toy which now lay stiffly on its side.

Carlyle was too sane not to gape. "Plastic."

"Yes. We're plastic toy soldiers. Bridger fished us from the trash and brought us to life, but we had a run-in with a cat today, and at our scale any cat may as well be the Nemean Lion. Pointer fought like a hero, but heroes die."

Now the other nine soldiers gathered around the Major at the table's edge. All but the paranoid Croucher had long since stopped bothering to wear their heavy helmets, but their uniforms remained, fatigues and pouches more intricate than any human hand could sew, with rifles frail as toothpicks slung across their backs.

Doubt had its moment now in Carlyle: "Some kind of U-beast? An A.I.?"

"Wouldn't that be a relief?" The Major laughed at it himself. "No, Bridger's power is not so explicable. One touch makes toy things real. You saw it just now with the Healing Potion vial Thisbe drew."

"Healing potion," Carlyle repeated.

"Mycroft," the Major called, "hand Carlyle the empty tube so they can feel it's real."

I did so, and Carlyle's fingers trembled, as if he expected the glass to pop like a soap bubble. It didn't.

"It works on anything," the Major continued, "any representation: statues, dolls, origami animals. We have paper, if you want to test it you can make a frog, just no cranes — frogs can be full-scale, but cranes weren't meant to be a finger tall, it's too unkind, ends badly."

Carlyle peered under the table, where an interposing chair half-concealed the figure huddled in a child's wrap, once blue and white, now blue and well-loved gray. "You're Bridger?"

Huddled knees huddled tighter.

"And you're Cousin Carlyle Foster?" Thisbe's voice and posture took command as she stepped forward. She had freed the sea of her black hair from the wad which had kept it dry through her morning shower, and donned her boots too, tall, taut Humanist boots patterned with a flowing brush-pen landscape, the kind with winding banks and misty mountains that the eye gets lost in. Any Humanist transforms, grows stronger, prouder, when they don the Hive boots which stamp each Member's signature into the dust of history, but if others change from house cat to regal tiger, Thisbe becomes something more extreme, some lost primordial predator known in our soft present only through its bones. She stared down at the intruder, her posture all power: squared shoulders, her dark neck straight, the indignity of her slept-in shirt forgotten. I believe there is some Mestizo blood deep in the Saneer line, but the rest of Thisbe is all India, large eyes larger for their long black lashes, so her harsh glance did not pierce so much as envelop its unhappy target as she repeated the sensayer's name. I was the target of her eyes this time, the too-slow syllables repeated for my sake, "Cousin Carlyle Foster." I gave the subtlest nod I could, confirming that, with hidden motions, I had already entered the name into my search, and that the data flicker on my lenses was me racing through police, employment, and Cousin Member records, my clearances slicing through security like a dissection-knife through flesh. In minutes I would know more about the sensayer than he knew about himself. You would be no less careful guarding Bridger.


Excerpted from Too Like the Lightning by Ada Palmer, Patrick Nielsen Hayden. Copyright © 2016 Ada Palmer. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
1. A Prayer to the Reader,
2. A Boy and His God,
3. The Most Important People in the World,
4. A Thing Long Thought Extinct,
5. Aristotle's House,
6. Rome Was Not Built in a Day ...,
7. Canis Domini,
8. A Place of Honor,
9. Every Soul That Ever Died,
10. The Sun Awaits His Rival,
11. Enter Sniper,
12. Neither Earth nor Atom, But ...,
13. ... Perhaps the Stars,
14. The Interlude of the Interview with Retired Black Sakura Reporter Tsuneo Sugiyama, as Related by Martin Guildbreaker,
15. If They Catch Me,
16. Thou Canst Not Put It Off Forever, Mycroft,
17. Tocqueville's Valet,
18. The Tenth Director,
19. Flies to Honey,
20. A Monster in the House,
21. That Which Is Caesar's,
22. Mycroft Is Mycroft,
23. Pontifex Maxima,
24. Sometimes Even I Am Very Lonely,
25. Madame's,
26. Madame D'Arouet,
27. The Interlude in Which Martin Guildbreaker Pursues the Question of Dr. Cato Weeksbooth,
28. The Enemy,
29. Julia, I've Found God!,
31. Dominant Predator,
32. That There Are Two,
33. Martin Guildbreaker's Last Interlude: "The Utopians Aren't Dirty like the Rest of Us",
Author's Note and Acknowledgments,
About the Author,

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