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May 16, 2016

On sale now: Ada Palmer’s debut novel Too Like the Lightning
Posted by Patrick at 10:18 AM * 26 comments

too-like-the-lightning.jpg On sale now in hardcover and e-book. Excerpts here: chapters 1 and 2, chapter 3, and chapter 4. Author websites: and Ex Urbe.

Some recent online author appearances:

My flap copy:

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…

Some notice:

“Mindblowingly great…Too Like the Lightning is a very difficult book to talk about to people who haven’t read it. It’s a huge complex book introducing a huge complex world, and it’s bursting with fascinating ideas. But there’s no simple elevator pitch explanation for it. I’ve spent the last four years dying to talk about it. As people have been reading the ARCs and loving it and posting about it on Twitter—Karl Schroeder (‘most exciting SF future I’ve encountered in years’), Fran Wilde (‘AMAZEBALLS. GET. READ.’), Ken Liu (‘reflective, analytical, smart, beautiful.’), Ellen Kushner (‘stylistically wacky and daring’), Max Gladstone (‘I’m kind of in love with this book’)—I’ve been bubbling over with ‘I told you you’d like it!’”
—Jo Walton,

“The difficult part (as I see it as a reader) of writing really good science fiction is that you need to make your society and your story strange enough to alienate and to provoke that sense of wonder, but familiar enough to be comprehensible. Palmer does this in an entirely novel way. Her imagined society misremembers and misinterprets the Enlightenment as does ours; it puts Enlightenment ideas to its own uses. These twin acts of misinterpretation are what create the bridge between the reader and a 25th century that is thoroughly unlike her own—it is the radically different uses of the Enlightenment that both make this future seem comprehensible and make it seem so dazzlingly strange. Again and again, her world seems familiar, when the reader encounters some scrap of an idea, or social practice or argument that builds on thinkers whom we think we know. But again and again, the rug is yanked away from beneath the reader as she realizes that no—this isn’t what it looked like at first glance, or that it is, but that it fits very differently because it has been cut to match the needs of a different world. The reader is looking into a mirror of misprisions. Too Like the Lightning is an Enlightenment book, but one that takes and radicalizes the lesson of a Romantic writer - to make the strange familiar and the familiar strange.”
—Henry Farrell, Crooked Timber

“It’s a thrilling feat of speculative worldbuilding, on par with those of masters like Gene Wolfe and Neal Stephenson. Her eye for political dynamics goes all the way down to the personal: Gender-specific pronouns are considered obscene and have become taboo. Yet as Mycroft tells the story, he consistently uses gendered pronouns—unreliably, it turns out—and what seems at first to be a minor detail winds up having more profound consequences. Not to mention plenty important to say about our current debate on the issue….One of the most maddening, majestic, ambitious novels—in any genre—in recent years.”
—Jason Heller,

“Astonishingly dense, accomplished and well-realized, with a future that feels real in both its strangeness and its familiarity….In the year 2454, in a world where technology has rendered countries obsolete and history has rendered genders and churches dangerous, the most reviled criminal of his age, now a slave to emperors, kings, CEOs and other powers, recounts a story to his readers. It’s a tale of how this world, freshly influenced by the philosophy of the Enlightenment, sees flying cars and most-influential-people lists, technology and politics, theology and sex, swirling around a plot, or plots, to either save the world or destabilize it back into bloody madness. And unknown to most of those plotting is the real secret our criminal is hiding: a boy who can make miracles in a world that’s outlawed conversion.”
RT Book Reviews

“More intricate, more plausible, more significant than any debut I can recall….Palmer writes science fiction like a historian, maneuvering vast historical forces deftly, plunging effortlessly into their minutae and detail, zooming out to dizzying heights to show how they all fit together. Her acknowledgements cite Alfred Bester as an influence, and that’s no surprise—few writers can trump Bester for the sense of a world that contains within it all the other worlds of all its inhabitants. Palmer, though, may have exceeded the master….Too Like the Lightning manages to be several books at once: a serious philosophical treatise; a murder-mystery whose surprises buffet the reader like cold slaps out of nowhere that feel inevitable in hindsight; a piece of historical theory in narrative form; a thought-experiment about gender, nationality, identity and bigotry; and a gripping personal story whose players are likable, flawed, sexy, and sometimes terrifying. If you read a debut novel this year, make it Too Like the Lightning.
—Cory Doctorow, Boing Boing

Comments on On sale now: Ada Palmer's debut novel Too Like the Lightning:
#1 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 10:27 AM:

I'm almost done with it. Fantastically interesting, but rather -- umm -- talky.

I suggest you not read the Kindle version; the typographical elements add to the usual problems with that format.

#2 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 10:29 AM:

As before, this should have gone up on publication day, last Tuesday, May 10. Fortunately, there's been no shortage of online attention for this title anyway. Jo Walton has a guest post at Ada's Ex Urbe blog linking to a number of the reviews.

There is also an unabridged audiobook available from Audible. What's not available are e-books or audiobooks for readers outside North America, because Tor doesn't have those rights and no UK/Commonwealth publisher has yet picked up the book. It is, however, perfectly legal for people outside North America to, for instance, buy a printed copy from

#3 ::: Elliott Mason ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 11:08 AM:

I was #1 on the hold list for Chicago Public Library. They had two copies listed last week, one "on order" and one "In processing, (main branch)".

I'm still #1 on 2 copies, today, but when I click for availability details the one that's not "on Order" is "All Copies in Use", which means it's been checked out.

I wonder if a librarian or other staffer goinked it to read first? :-> If it were on its way to me it would be notated differently.

#4 ::: Fragano Ledgister ::: (view all by) ::: May 16, 2016, 03:41 PM:

It sounds to me, without having read it, that she's projecting from the kinds of communities that exist on the net. Like this one.

#5 ::: Lizzy L ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 12:42 AM:

I am number 8 on the Hold list in the Contra Costa County library system. It's still being processed but should start circulating shortly. I hope they bought more than one copy!

#6 ::: donatellonerd ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 01:56 AM:

successfully bought the ebook in Paris from the iBooks store, as a registered in France customer.

#7 ::: Bill Stewart ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 02:32 AM:

I have seen the hardback book in Books Inc. in Mountain View California.

#8 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 05:59 AM:

An excellent book. And I'm keeping the coinage "voker".

#9 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 09:14 AM:

Based on her blog posts on history, and what I've read of the book's promotion, I'm very much looking forward to this book. The only thing that makes me a bit wary is the "first volume of a series!" thing. Makes me think that maybe I ought to wait a few years until the whole thing comes out. Can anyone speak to how complete the story is? Does it feel like a novel, or like half or a quarter of a novel?

#10 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 10:19 AM:

Stephen Frug @ #9: It's got one hell of a cliffhanger. Not a series, though; just one big book cut in two.

#11 ::: marek ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 11:27 AM:

Amazon will happily sell me a copy through, which is even better than PNH suggests (other than the minor detail that they have none in stock). But as he also says, they can't and won't sell the kindle edition. The commercial models of publishing are well and truly broken (and yes, I know that's not Tor's fault or indeed any other indivdual's or publisher's fault - but the fact remains that I am a willing buyer with no willing seller, who would be delighted to give money to both author and publisher, which they have no means of accepting (and yes, I also know that there is nothing new or original in this rant - but that doesn't make the situation any less frustrating)).

More entertainingly, considers the author's name to be "Assistant Professor of History Ada Palmer", with the pleasing implication that first publication was in Radch.

#12 ::: Theophylact ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 03:40 PM:

Myself @ #10: Actually, Palmer says on Ex Urbe that Terra Ignota is a series of four books.

#13 ::: Jo Walton ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 04:16 PM:

Stephen -- by all means wait to read a series if you want to read the whole thing together. But BUY each volume as it appears, because of the way publishing and bookselling works, otherwise you're cutting the author's throat.

#14 ::: Zora ::: (view all by) ::: May 17, 2016, 05:58 PM:

I bought it in e, I read it, and I was disappointed. It's a #$%@#$%#$# cliffhanger.

Not to mention multiple problems with the worldbuilding.

#15 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 10:46 AM:

I hate cliffhangers. I particularly hate cliffhangers with long waits for resolution. With all apologies to Ms. Palmer, I think I'll wait. (I won't be impacting her sales, however, as I'd have to get it from the library anyway.)

#16 ::: Christopher Young ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 01:24 PM:

marek @11, not merely does not deign to sell the kindle edition they are, as of today (18 May) out of stock of the print versions- a week after publication! Congratulations to Prof Palmer on her sales, of course, but it doesn't really reflect well on Amazon's ability to estimate demand. Anybody with a browser knew that this was going to be a publishing Event.

#17 ::: Stephen Frug ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 02:08 PM:

Theophylact @10: Thanks.

Jo Walton @13: Oh, I already bought it. :) I'm just adjusting its position in the "to read" stack.

#18 ::: dotless ı ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 02:58 PM:

I've just finished the book (after a frustratingly long time listening to people whose opinions I trust saying "This book is so great!"), and it really is very satisfying.

abi@8: And I'm keeping the coinage "voker".

Yes! The section explaining the term filled me with delight.

One thing that struck me is how considerate an author Ada Palmer is: heaps of allusions, languages, history, invention, and other complexity, but always with just enough explanation. Instead of being, "See how smart I am!" it's consistently, "Let me share this really neat thing with you!"

Jacque@15: I hate cliffhangers

I can't say how you would react, but I didn't feel left dangling by the ending. I felt like I'd just hit the end of an amazing meal of many intricate courses, and was then told there would be another one coming on a later day. I'm really looking forward to the next meal, but right now I'm replete.

In other day or three I'll go back and reread to see what else there is in the book.

#19 ::: Jacque ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 03:38 PM:

dotless ı: Hm. That's reassuring. But doesn't that, like, contradict "cliff-hanger?"

#20 ::: dotless ı ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 04:15 PM:

Jacque@19: But doesn't that, like, contradict "cliff-hanger?"

It's a cliffhanger; but, atypically for me, I just didn't mind at all.

Keeping in mind that I'm only describing my own reaction (and others obviously reacted differently): I've read plenty of books that end in cliffhangers, and I generally dislike the feeling of having a book just stop. Plot-wise, that's what happens here, but it didn't hit me the same way. Do you ever have it happen that you're reading a book and then something makes you say, "Wait, now I really want to reread that bit a couple of chapters back to see how it fit in?" The end of Too Like the Lightning made me feel like that with the whole rest of the book.

So: I'll grab the next book as soon as I can get my hands on it; but for the time being I'm satisfied. Your mileage may vary.

#21 ::: Cat ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 04:28 PM:

I read it and I have Thoughts but I thought I should check about the status of spoilers in this thread. As in are they okay? I don't think I have any big reveals to spoil but I don't think I can comment while giving nothing away either.

#22 ::: abi ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 04:39 PM:

Cat @21:

No spoilers here, but I can start a spoiler thread.

#23 ::: Paul Woodford ::: (view all by) ::: May 18, 2016, 07:38 PM:

My Goodreads review here FWIW. Summary: thought some of Ada Palmer's linguistic and typographical playfulness got in the way of her story. Just a bit.

#24 ::: donatellonerd ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 05:07 AM:

If i'd known it was one book cut in two (or is it one book cut in 4), I'm not sure I'd have chosen to read it now. but as someone who frankly dislikes suspense and frequently reads the end early (though i wasn't tempted here because it kept being interesting and not quite suspenseful enough to provoke anxiety), I'm more irritated at not being warned it wouldn't end than upset at not knowing. if that makes any sense. and I'm looking forward to December.

#25 ::: Cat ::: (view all by) ::: May 19, 2016, 09:37 AM:

To abi @22

Thank you abi!

#26 ::: Terry Hunt ::: (view all by) ::: May 20, 2016, 08:09 PM:

Briefly de-lurking to mention that the book is also being discussed on Language Log, for reasons that will be obvious to anyone who's read it (which I haven't as yet).

*Re-dons cloak of lurkiness*

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