Seven Surrenders and The Will to Battle (Books 2 and 3 of Terra Ignota)

Ada Palmer

Head of Zeus, 368 & 352 pages

Review by Eris Young

 

Terra Ignota is the story of a collapsing world. The quadrilogy, books two and three of which were released in the UK late last year, takes place in a seemingly utopian society carefully stewarded by an elite ruling class. The narrative is the story of these stewards, the leaders of each government, or hive, who operate outside the awareness of the average citizen. At the end of the first book, Too Like the Lightning, a conspiracy comes to light that threatens to topple the entire structure. In book two, Seven Surrenders, the dangers of war for a gentle world full of medical nanotechnology and bioengineered luxuries is fully revealed. After an assassination attempt tips the world closer to danger, Bridger, a young boy with miraculous powers, makes the ultimate sacrifice to give the world a war hero to guide it through the time ahead. Book three follows the world powers through a series of strained negotiations, shepherded by this new hero, and as disaster strikes at the end of the third book, The Will to Battle, it seems that war has finally arrived.

Narrated by Mycroft Canner, servant to all seven hives and certified madman, the Terra Ignota books take place over just a few frenetic days. The reader is given a highly-detailed view of the world’s political microcosm as the delicate equilibrium of the hives is upset (be aware that there will be slight spoilers in this review as I talk about how this equilibrium is upset).

Perhaps one of the most notable aspects of the first book in the series, Too Like the Lightning (reviewed in Shoreline of Infinity issue 10), is Palmer/Canner’s lush, even indulgent description of every setting, character and conversation. This serves a practical purpose: to give the 21st century reader a crash course in 25th century culture. But it also serves a narrative one: in Seven Surrenders and The Will to Battle, the utopian society that seemed entirely lacking in conflict  is revealed to be a fiction, built on a foundation of corruption, murder and quasi-incest.

In a shrewd parallel, Canner’s narration is itself called into question, and other characters, whose accounts are included like evidence in a tribunal, repeatedly question his judgment. This reinforces the building sense of unease and dissonance which eventually explodes at the end of Seven Surrenders.

It was over the course of this middle volume that the series won me over. Where Palmer obfuscated in the first book, here she explains. I experienced several moments of epiphany in Seven Surrenders where details clicked into place, and the full scale of the conspiracy on which the conflict rests began to be revealed.

In book two the wholesome, even saccharine, dialogue and customs depicted in book one are replaced by—or revealed to be a facade masking—perversion, corruption, a rotten core. This payoff is one of Palmer’s greatest narrative successes; there were several instances in books two and three that had me gasping aloud despite myself, scandalised.

If Seven Surrenders was devoted to revealing some rather jarring complexities in the worldbuilding set up by book one, book three, The Will to Battle, is dedicated to documenting how that complexity—those mistakes, those hidden fetishes, that corruption, those lies—are tipping this carefully tended system towards global, devastating war, despite the best efforts of all the king’s horses and all the king’s men. There is a gathering urgency in The Will to Battle that throws the micro-scale of the story into sharp relief, and the second-by-second telling of the final scene in book three, detailing the exact moment war breaks out, suggests book four will be even more gripping.

In a recent Reddit AMA, Palmer was asked why her books seem to focus on the influence of “great men and women” instead of the power of the people. The cascade of events of book three belie this assumption: the great actors whom we’ve followed from the beginning—and who’ve been set up as nearly infallible in Too Like the Lightning, are swept along on a tide of public outrage, fear and panic.

Just as the best stories are ones that challenge the status quo, I maintain that the best books about powerful people are about their vulnerabilities. The narratives I’m interested in are those that take a system—whether it exists in real life or not—and subverts it. In Terra Ignota chroniclers are revealed to be madmen, peace is bought with violence, enlightenment is built on fallacy, and all the rulers of the world are in thrall to a monster of their own making.

More than the fancy language, the worldbuilding and the literary references, these reversals in status, the hamartia and the fall, are what make Terra Ignota compelling. And just as the leaders are carried on an inexorable tide towards war, the rising tension and explosive action in books two and three have carried me along, almost against my will. I can’t wait for the next book.

The fourth book in the Terra Ignota series, Perhaps the Stars, will be released sometime in 2019.