Modern classic: The Will to Battle (Terra Ignota 3) by Ada Palmer

This review has been several weeks in making.  Usually, I write reviews in a week, with multiple rereads and revisions.  In this case, I never felt that my efforts were adequate to the quality of the book, and I ended up completely scrapping several drafts.  Even this review is not up to the task, but there came a point when I needed to move on.  Terra Ignota has become my most favorite science fiction series of this century, and The Will to Battle was yet another improvement of the narrative.  It is extremely well thought out, with compelling albeit imperfect characters, plausible story and daring literary elements that left me in awe of the author.  The series, and in particular this book, is not for everyone, as it is extremely short in action and heavy in introspection.  This is not a comfort read.  It’s difficult, slow to digest, and may require an encyclopedia close at hand.  However, this also makes the title extremely memorable and rewarding.

The story takes place in our world in the middle of the 25th century.  Nation states are a thing of the past, with people freely electing to be members of one of the seven global hives, or to remain outside the system.  Each hive espouses different values, is governed by different laws, and is more of a virtual than physical entity.  So, in this borderless world, members of all hives may coexist in the same city, working together without serious conflict, mainly thanks to a list of laws that govern them all, set by the Universal Free Alliance Senate.  This is also an age of unprecedented prosperity and peace.

The previous books revealed that a conflict was brewing.  The fragile balance between the hives has been slowly tipping in favor of some, and the only reason large scale conflicts did not erupt was a secret campaign of assassinations of people who, according to predictive modeling, were in a position to cause unrest.  The assassinations were performed by the Saneer-Weeksbooth bash (bash being the common family unit of that time, with multiple parents and children, not all of whom may have been blood-related).  When their project became public knowledge, some of the bash members were arrested, while others went into hiding.  It was also revealed that three hives directed the assassination program and targeted only members of the other hives.  This created serious tensions, which brought the world to the brink of war.

In a parallel plot, a mastermind, commonly referred to as Madame, has influenced or blackmailed the leaders of all hives to install her son, J.E.D.D. Mason, as their heir.  Over time, Jehovah, as he became known to most characters (even though each faction has a different name for him), would gain control over the entire world.  Sniper, a member of the S-W bash, finds this out and assassinates him at the steps of the Senate.  He is revived by a miracle potion, and it is revealed that his body is inhabited by the god of a parallel universe, invited to ours by the god of our universe, who decided to perform a series of miracles through a boy, Bridger.  This boy had the ability to add life to lifeless toys, create magic items such as a true invisibility cloak, and make resurrection potions.  Bridger, whose mental state was seriously damaged by his adversaries, sacrifices his own life to transform into the legendary hero Achilles.

The Will to Battle begins at this point.  The leader of the S-W bash is awaiting trial, and the president of his hive suggests that he pleads terra ignota, or ignorance that the assassinations were actually criminal.  When the news reaches the public, people are outraged, and they demand that the entire hives that ordered the assassinations are punished.  A fierce debate in the senate ensues, with many other points of order, some more and some less relevant to the main narrative.  Still, most people feel aimless.  They don’t know whether they’d fight, and against whom.  The hives are preparing for war, stockpiling weapons and medical supplies, but after centuries of peace nobody but Achilles knows how to wage war, so he consults with some of the hives on how to prepare.

The lack of focus starts changing when, during the senate debate, one of the senators creates a symbol for herself, a bullseye that she pins to her dress.  This symbolizes her commitment to die for humanity, and the suggestion that she accepts the policy of assassinations and would become a willing victim if the circumstances demanded so.  A short time later, J.E.D.D. Mason publicly declares that he will remake the world in his image, but for this he requires the unconditional surrender of all hives to him.  The battle lines are drawn: The Remakers around Jehovah, and the Hiveguard, rallying around Sniper.

Fortunately, humanity is still holding a truce, which is supposed to last at least until the end of the next scheduled Olympiad.  During this truce, the Utopians, a hive that works toward mankind’s expansion to other planets and stars, and is seen as technologically vastly superior to everyone else, announce that they have captured all Harbingers, weapons capable of mass destruction.  At the same time, they kidnapped all people able to create such weapons.  Even though they did so to prevent mass slaughter, this immediately sets the rest of the world against them, but the truce holds until the Olympics are over.  Once that happens, the war is formally declared at a ceremony in the Alliance capital, Romanova.  Almost immediately, the Utopian undersea city Atlantis is attacked and destroyed, resulting in the loss of thousands of lives, seemingly including that of the book’s narrator, Mycroft Canner.

As usual, my summary does the book no justice.  There are side stories almost as prominent as the main one, the narrative is incredibly dense, and even though very little happens, the deliberation, complex political and interpersonal relationships, and philosophic inserts force the reader to pay very close attention.  The book both suffers and benefits from Mycroft’s increasingly imperfect narration.  In the first book, Mycroft has been largely mentally competent and quite forceful in his ways.  Since then, however, he had been broken down, both emotionally and mentally.  He is prone to outbursts of crying, and he leads long conversations with imaginary people, philosophers and even the readers.  Sometimes, he even actively deceives the reader, mainly by misusing gendered pronouns.  This makes it an extremely difficult read, which may not suit all readers, as it forces them to make their own mind of what’s going on.

Palmer’s incredibly detailed world needs narration like this, though.  The world is rich in well-fleshed characters, politics that is so intricate that establishing patterns or expectations for various factions is a futile effort, and yet everything somehow makes sense.  I personally think that this sense is the reader’s insert: the narration doesn’t really explain anything, but it manages to condition the reader’s brain to lose all preconceived notions and look at the entire narrative with a fresh perspective.  For example, I have been pretty vocal about the misuse of neutral pronouns in literature, which confused me, and I needed to know the genders of the characters to make sense of the narrative.  Here, Palmer has so screwed with my head that I not only accepted that the vast majority of characters does not have a defined gender, but those who do, via Mycroft, may not be correctly categorized.  Half of this book in, I realized I did not care about it at all.  All characters were Tabula Rasa for me, and I was free to assume whatever I wanted.  Exactly the same applied to the hives and factions within the hives.  I was completely free to sympathize with some while rejecting others.  Palmer essentially provided a very complex sandbox for my imagination to play in.

From a literary perspective, this book is flawless.  The author uses some less common elements, ranging from conversations with the reader, to multi-columns when parallel events are described.  Here, too, everything hinges on Mycroft’s mental state, and this is best illustrated by the final chapter, when a new narrator takes place of the disappeared Mycroft, and the writing style completely changes.  The new style is almost identical to that of Mycroft’s from the first book, and it beautifully illustrates Mycroft’s gradual descent into mental instability, which is so natural and gradual that I didn’t catch it until the final chapter of this book.

The last point I’d like to raise is the same as in my review of Seven Surrenders: Palmer manages to keep the sequels fresh by focusing on different aspects of the world.  The first book was an exposition to a completely new political system and structure of families, as well as a gripping murder mystery around the assassination scheme, while in parallel people were hunting for Bridger.  The second book is a set of backroom conspiracies that reveal the real world order.  It largely focuses on a narrow set of the most powerful individuals.  The Will to Battle is on its surface an exercise in political theory, explaining how Palmer’s world could function.  However, the most important element is the understanding of the changed human psyche, not conditioned for war anymore.  People are far freer to display their emotions, and not controlling them is no longer considered a sign of weakness.  They are woefully unprepared for war.  They have a difficult time deciding what to fight for and more importantly, what they are willing to die for.  Even the reader may find it hard to imagine an armed conflict in a world without defined territories, where various bash members may belong to different hives, and where you can have instant enemies among your friends, neighbors, or coworkers.  Exploring these topics instead of developing the already existing ideas from the previous books keeps this volume as fresh as the first two titles.

I can’t recommend the Terra Ignota series enough.  The books present a very difficult read, which only gets harder with each volume.  The works are not for everyone.  Many will find them inaccessible, mainly due to the numerous references to classical mythology and philosophy.  However, even those who are not familiar with either, will appreciate the literary quality and incredibly rich world these books present.  The Will to Battle makes it even easier for readers: philosophy is largely limited to Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, while the narration style surpasses both book’s predecessors.  This is a true gem in the series, one to slowly digest, even multiple times.

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