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Ada Palmer's sequel to Too Like the Lightning (reviewed here), book two of four. Major spoilers under the cut.


I fully intended to read this book in the same "let's see where this goes" spirit as I had the first book, and that lasted until page 25, when I closed it, looked at it sideways, and said "jesus, I have to read three hundred more pages about this pack of assholes?". Or it might have been "jackasses" or possibly "fuckheads", all of which are subtly different. But, anyways, apparently my patience with the long game and meticulous domino set-up was rather more exhausted than I had realized. Someone mentions the Seven-Ten List and it's like, oh my god, are we still talking about that? But I kept reading, in hopes of eventually getting to the *interesting* parts of the story... imagine my irritation, o fellow reader, when I got to that shaggy-dog-story of an ending and the interesting game-piece we'd waited the whole damn duology to see in action took itself off the board.

I am forced to conclude that I really have no idea what Palmer is trying to do in these books. This is somewhat lampshaded by Palmer repeatedly banging on about how the characters have no idea what God is doing, and of course in a book, God is the author. So, like, Palmer tells us straight out: she's not working toward some happy end where they're all saved, and every bad thing that happens turns out to be for the best in ways we can't see yet; there is a guiding principle but it's not Good or Evil or Justice or Progress, it's something we haven't figured out yet. (p 359) I can think of plenty of reasons authors write books - to entertain, to tell a moving, satisfying, or memorable story, to instruct or argue. I had thought for awhile that Palmer was working up to a Big Idea, but now I'm coming around to the suspicion that we just have different sources of reader pleasure and ideas about what makes a satisfying story. (And That's Okay, as they say.) Like I got frustrated with A Song of Ice and Fire because it was this story about everyone wasting their time stupidly before the real story finally happened and then at some point I realized that GRRM *was really into telling those parts of the story* or he wouldn't be spending so much time on them. Palmer is really genuinely intrigued by D'Arouet's web of manipulations and corruption in the Cousins system and Casimir Perry's tragic backstory and Mycroft's justification for torture-murder or she wouldn't spend so many pages on them. That's the novel. And the fact that I really only care about the most metaphysical level, JEDD vs Bridger, what happens when you introduce magic to a closed system, that's *my* interest, but not the novel's interest.

So will I read the other two? I don't know. I might... I *might* still read the rest of ASOIAF, if it ever finishes and I know how many books that would mean reading. On the other hand there are an immense number of books that might entertain me or tell me a moving or satisfying story, and these books may just not have the kind of payoff that I was hoping for.

Two more quick thoughts. I found it increasingly ridiculous and tiresome that there were hundreds or thousands of people so addicted to this costume brothel that their "only hope of sexual satisfaction" depended on it, and that that was the most important thing to them. I couldn't quite tell whether the novel was deliberately casting that as pathetic or if that was just my reaction. So much of everyone's backstory is so sordid and stupid. Also, I'm finding it increasingly hard to buy into the idea that the gender stuff is still so powerful that it can literally conquer the world, but somehow the other prejudices and oppressions from our era that intersect gender don't need to be discussed. Liiike, wouldn't the 18th century roleplaying start to look a little different if they were getting dressed up to act out deep-but-suppressed ideas about white supremacy? Except maybe that's actually less suppressed in that world, with the whole Spanish monarchy bloodline thing, and "Europe" being one of the Hives, and this division at the end between Europe & Rome on the one hand and Team Asia on the other hand, let's call that, say, "The Orient". And then from a whole other angle, what kind of lurking ableism is there between, say, the Humanists/Olympians and the Cousins? I think we're supposed to believe that D'Arouet revived gender into an otherwise post-kyriarchal society, but since we never get to see the world beyond this particular pack of assholes, who can say. (Also speaking of the Cousins, all parents are mothers? I guess? I can't tell whether Palmer is actually arguing Heloise's argument, or if it's just in character, but often the multiple-page speech 5/6 of the way through the book is something the author actually wants to say. :/ And - okay, I'm *sure* Palmer is vastly better read and educated than I am, how dare I go up against a professional historian - but "people who identified as feminine were caretakers" feels profoundly ahistorical to me. Like, the kinds of work she calls eclectic but united by being feminine (nurturing, healing, child rearing, peace and charity), I think it's a particular sort of cultural blindness to think that men have *not* done those kinds of work? Like, if you think about, I don't know, old myths or old fairy tales, my intuition would be that we do see male characters doing this kind of work. Obviously you can say "well, it's still feminine whoever's doing it, and aggression is always masculine, and it's just that people of any gender are sometimes acting in a masculine or feminine way and everyone does both", but at that point I sort of have to ask why we're so bent on labeling this *gender* and not just compassion/aggression. "Emotional labor is just fundamentally feminine so it's not surprising that it's only performed by a subset of people" is... a nice excuse for everyone who doesn't, I guess. Pardon me while my eyes roll.)
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