Seven Surrenders, by Ada Palmer

Review copy provided by Tor Books.

I really wanted to love this book. The author is not a close friend of mine, but she is a close friend of many of my friends, and I generally consider her to be a person of goodwill, someone who’s likely to try interesting things. I had a couple of main issues with Seven Surrenders that prevented me from really loving it, though.

First, the gender stuff. Seven Surrenders gives a fuller view than Too Like the Lightning of what exactly is going on with the treatment of gender in the society depicted and in the narrative chosen to depict it–but that fuller treatment comes at the very end of the book, after hundreds of pages of gender essentialism and…um. There is only one openly nonbinary character, and that person is assigned the pronoun “it” after their genitals are revealed to be a particular intersex configuration. (There are complicating factors to this choice, but not, I think, complicating enough.) Do I think that Ada Palmer would call an nb person “it”? Absolutely not, never. But choosing this language for the narrator to use in this context seems like it has a reasonable chance of feeling like a slap to people for whom this issue is far more personal than it is to me, so…the combination leaves me feeling like I, personally, see what she was trying to do and where it went wrong, but I’m not at all sure I would recommend that someone for whom our own culture’s current treatment of gender issues is a fresher wound.

Second, the book split. As I understand it, Too Like the Lightning and Seven Surrenders were originally conceived of as one book and were split for the purposes of publication. I sympathize with both halves of this: telling an 800-page story is no less valid than telling an 8-page story or an 80-page story. Stories come in different sizes. And yet an 800-page book changes printing a lot–and changes lugging the book around–and changes who is willing to even give it a try. However…for me, what that meant was that TLTL did not have an entirely satisfying ending, and SS started with a hundred pages of people tormenting each other. Without the momentum and balance of the rest of the story immediately preceding it, I had a hard time wanting to start with that much nastiness unbalanced by other elements.

Eventually the balance does get restored, though these are not, I should be clear, books about nice people who have picnics and perhaps walk through a garden from time to time. After a moment of melodrama that I just did not care about in the middle of the book, the through-thread reasserts itself enough to put the melodrama into context, and the larger world politics get their urgency back with a vengeance.

My recommendation is that if you’re interested in this series, you should read SS as soon as possible after TLTL to make it as close to the originally intended reading experience as possible. My understanding is that there are two more books to come, and there’s a lot of potential in the ideas here–and Ada told me in an interview last spring that some of the particular cultural institutions of this world will get more attention in later volumes. I’m looking forward to that part. There are still flying cars here, but this bit is mostly interpersonal machinations that also happen to be political machinations. I stuck around for the bit where they got political, and that didn’t disappoint me. But there’s still a really big canvas left to work with here, and I’ll be interested to see where Ada goes with it.

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