Modern classic: Seven Surrenders (Terra Ignota 2) by Ada Palmer

A book of the caliber of Too Like the Lighting is difficult to emulate, especially with a sequel that is designed to be a direct continuation of the first book. Palmer manages to do just that with yet another exceptional novel, which succeeds to seamlessly integrate the continuing narrative, new and fresh spins, and a prose that is more approachable to the readers. Seven Surrenders is yet another gem of the 21st century.

The first two novels of the series are meant to be read as one book, and so the story picks up immediately where the previous one left off. The Saneer-Weeksbooth bash (loose family unit) is suspected of performing political assassinations geared towards peace and stability in the world. Mycroft Canner, the narrator, is under house arrest and unlikely to ever see freedom again. His young charge, the boy Bridger who has the ability to transform toys into sentient living beings and conjure any kind of item, is on the run from Dominic, an enforcer for Jehovah Mason. Jehovah is an uncanny young man who seems to have wormed his way into all leadership structures around the world.

It quickly emerges that the S-W bash kill list is dictated by three of the seven hives, the Humanists, Mitsubishi and the European Union. In addition to world stability, the assassinations are seemingly benefiting these three hives. While a new murder is plotted (and later stopped by the police who uses it as a trap for the bash), Sniper, a prominent member of the S-W bash is kidnapped and used as a sex toy. In exchange, the kidnapper, Dominic, gets possession of Carlyle, a confession priest to the bash. From her, Dominic gets confirmation of the existence of Bridger and sets to hunt him. Soon, he confronts Bridger’s guardian and Mycroft’s lover, Saladin, defeats him in combat and presents him to the Emperor. Mycroft is reunited with Saladin, and he finally explains why he went on a murder spree all those years ago.

According to Mycroft, his victims plotted to start a war. They surmised that mankind became too complacent, and the longer there was peace between wars, the worse the next war would have been, so provoking a war now would increase the chances that humanity would survive the fighting, rather than waiting for another conflict in a few centuries. It appears, however, that Mycroft’s plan was useless, as war still is on the horizon. War, political assassinations and a convoluted plot to bring down the world’s government all come crashing down on a meeting of all the heads of hives at Madamme’s brothel, where the brainwashed Carlyle begins a snowball of revealed secrets, secret children, incestuous relationships, inflated egos and a plot to take over the world. When the meeting descends into violence, Sniper crashes the party and rescues one of its participants.

Sniper soon realizes the entire scope of the conspiracy and resolves to kill Jehovah Mason. The police, meanwhile, closes on the heads of the hives, and serves warrants for three of them. S-W bash’s crimes are revealed, along with the conspiracy, resulting in worldwide unrest. In order to calm the situation, the hive heads and Jehovah attempt to present their views and findings to the Imperial senate, but before he has the chance to speak, Jehovah is shot dead by Sniper. Sniper then broadcasts a new, deeper layer of the global conspiracy, which only incenses the masses further. Bridger appears, conjures a resurrection potion, and saves Jehovah. Dominic pursues Sniper, kills him, but it is revealed that this was just one of Sniper’s life-like dolls, which Bridger brought to live. The real Sniper is still somewhere out there, and Jehovah tasks Mycroft with finding and killing him. Mycroft, however, first goes to find Bridger. Bridger decides that his powers are too dangerous for mankind, and he commits suicide by transforming into the fiercest warrior he knows, Achilles, in order to lead the armies in the upcoming war. Worldwide upheaval continues, with each hive dealing with it as they see fit, and war is about to begin in earnest, when the book ends.

Just as with the previous book, there is precious little action. Instead, most conflict takes place in meetings, via dialogue. Palmer goes overboard with conspiracies on top of conspiracies, convoluted reveals that lead to even more questions, and flashbacks that come as means of explanation to what just happened, not a foreshadowing where the reader could sort things out before the book’s characters do. This creates a delightful, convoluted mess where everything is eventually presented on a platter. The reader doesn’t need to think too hard, and yet feels satiated from all the dense, exciting story that takes place in a few short days, in only a handful locations. The author actually takes shortcuts to avoid action wherever possible and instead focuses on the aftermath. At times, the book feels more like a stage play in a gladiatorial arena.

Palmer’s writing style has somewhat mellowed, allowing for the convoluted plot to make more sense. I suspect this may have been due to reader feedback, as the previous volume may have felt inaccessible to many fans. Gone is the experimental narration, and even Mycroft is taking on a more background role, and instead reports what he’s been told or what he researched. Thus, the narration is a little more straight-forward with fewer segues, especially those of a philosophical nature, and the jarring transcripts of conversations are largely gone.

That’s not to say the book is an easy read. Even though Renaissance philosophers are a little pushed into the background, Palmer leans all the more heavily on ancient Greek myths, and without at least a rudimentary knowledge of the mythological characters and their relationships some readers may become confused. This is most apparent when Achilles is revealed, as the hints may not be discernable to people who are not familiar with his myth. Palmer also attempts to dig into European history, and this was the only time I felt uncomfortable with her lack of accuracy. The author’s depiction of World War I, as a cautious tale for a future war, largely misses the mark. In particular, she posits that there has been a long period of peace before the first world war, which exacerbated the impact of the war, even though the war has actually been a continuation of the War of 1870. This single issue has pulled me out of my captivation, and I finished the book much less immersed into the plot than I would have liked to.

The novel, however, goes far beyond the plot. Palmer does an excellent job at defining the motivations of the major players. While in the first book she seems to revel in the moral decay and decadence of the society, here she swings back and actually promotes more traditional values. Conflict, even war, is good for mankind, as long as it is carefully managed. Gender identity is even more important, and neutering the language and society leaves it weak to external and internal threats. Even the question of godhood is raised, in a way that is bound to make many readers uncomfortable. The initial description of interdimensional gods is jarring, to say the least, as something that belongs to a completely different book. It serves its purpose, though, as it leads to the transformation of one of the main characters into one with the potential and capability for absolutely horrific actions.

In my opinion, this books fully delivers on its promise to conclude the narrative of the first book. It actually goes beyond that. It fleshes out the story in directions not even hinted in its predecessor. Palmer makes the sequel fresh and relevant by changing the writing style ever so slightly to appease the fans of the previous novel, while not burdening them with more of the same. And it leaves just enough tantalizing hints for people to look forward to the next series of books. Seven Surrenders is a worthy and welcome successor to one of the best books of this millennium I’ve read.

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