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Seven Surrenders
a sequel to Too Like the Lightning
by Ada Palmer
Tor, $26.99, 365 pages
Published: March 2017

Seven Surrenders continues the events of a future history’s turning point, 400 years in the future. Humanity has reorganized itself into social polities, called hives, based on shared interests and abilities, and most people get along reasonably well. This is not a Utopian society; people still cheat, lie, steal, even murder, but most of them don’t have to spend their lives in a desperate struggle for survival, food, shelter, employment, or affection. Instead, they get to concentrate on friendship, play, creativity, and work they enjoy doing. Religion, partiality to which was the root of most of humanity’s wars, has been recast as a personal matter, and organized religions have been outlawed.  So has gender partiality.  So how do the tendencies to impose categories of “Us” and “Them” (pejorative implicit) break forth?

Hives are becoming competitive: members put more effort into self-identifying via external signals, less and less out of joy in self-expression and more and more to subsume their sense of self in the mass mentality. Meanwhile, hive leaders play power games that are tangled up in gender role-playing based on such dubious models as Diderot and De Sade.  The bright society has its dark shadows; and yet, in the heart of the darkness of Blacklaw depravities is a pure being who is loved by all who have corrupted themselves in that place.  Or almost all...

Mycroft Canner, the main narrator, is the most hated person in the world, the one who shocked everyone by committing a series of brutal, politically motivated murders.  His punishment was not death, but servitude to society as a whole.  His most closely guarded secret is not why he did what he did. It isn’t even his sacred trust to safeguard the young boy Bridger who has an extraordinary ability, because he shares that trust with others, nor is it the closely guarded secret of his Hive’s function.  In this sequel all his secrets are revealed, torn from him and used against him.

If Sniper was your favorite character in the first book, you are in for the literary time of your life. Sniper comes into their own, more than living up to their many names, including “Living Doll”. 

The central question at the heart of the murders and alarums of this story is: Can humankind evolve beyond the compulsion to war? Ancillary/collateral questions are, Can we transcend a bipolar, polarizing view of gender? And can we colonize the solar system and beyond?

The author’s use of gender pronouns in both volumes is very carefully thought-out, and yes, it is deliberately confusing at times, because the narrating character has agendas.  My message to readers who struggle with this wordplay is: It’s worth it – there are moments in this book where the use of gender pronouns is devastatingly effective. It is as if we, author and reader together, have been pushing an oppressively unwieldy boulder uphill, building up tremendous potential energy, which is suddenly released to smash through preconceptions and assumptions. In effect, Palmer does psychologically and figuratively what LeGuin did literally in The Left Hand of Darkness

Remarking on the title, there are seven clear surrenders, exquisitely detailed near the end, although they have not all happened at the same time. Each one is personified by one or more Hive leader, so each surrender has tremendous societal consequences.  But you can also count the individual surrenders that happen along the way to these revelations.  A great title works on more than one level.

This passionate, articulate, heart-rending, multi-climactic sequel is beautifully written.  There are so many surprises and “this changes everything” revelations that I am resolved to start at the beginning and re-read both books, so I can appreciate the craftsmanship of the characterizations and the architecture of the plotting with something akin to the author’s comprehension, of which I am in awe.

Mycroft, who speaks directly to us and thereby speaks more or less directly for us, recurringly struggles to comprehend the nature of Providence, refusing to use more deistic terms.  And here we may as well point out that, as the author, Palmer IS Providence for these characters; she has absolute, ultimate power – doesn’t she? Can’t authors do whatever they will? Yes – and no. Yes, there are chaotic, coyote writers, but even they must employ conventions to communicate, even if they defy or modify many of the conventions in the process.  What writer does not feel compulsions and harsh necessities of plotting, of reader expectations, of publisher’s demands based on market expectations, of characters who hijack a story because they have lives of their own?  Palmer, via Canner, reflects on this nature of being a poetes, a maker.  Once you outgrow the self-indulgence of Mary Sue fiction – which has a valid place, for how else will you know what you love if you do not give all you love a face? – and give birth to something complex and contradictory and unpredictable and beyond yourself, and give that to the world, you love and suffer and rejoice as a god, perhaps, loves and suffers and rejoices. This is not intended as blasphemy, but as appreciation of creative spirit.  ~~ Chris Wozney

Too Like the Lightning reviewed here

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