Ada Palmer, Seven Surrenders (2017)

Author: Ada Palmer

Title: Seven Surrenders

Format: paperback

Pages: 365

Series: Terra Ignota #2

Seven Surrenders is the second installment in Ada Palmer’s acclaimed Terra Ignota series, following immediately after the events depicted in Too Like the Lightning. Spanning only a couple of days, it’s packed with pivotal events, heightened emotions, and operatic drama. As its predecessor, it tries to say something meaningful about utilitarianism and religion, about gender and sex and war, maybe about determinism and free will as well. It saddens me to report that this time around, however, it failed on all fronts – at least  for me.

I’ll be frank, and succinct. I did not enjoy reading this novel. I still can’t believe it was only 365 pages – it sure felt much, much longer. The reading was a chore, and at least twice, after some particularly melodramatic reveals, I was ready to DNF it. I didn’t, and I’m glad I persevered, because I feel Palmer’s ambition deserves to be read and talked about. But the sheer amount of improbability, both psychological and physical, the overabundance of coincidences and twists of fate, didn’t feel like proving the existence of Providence – only like lazy writing. I guess Palmer’s 18th century hangup, while arguably charming, has some very serious drawbacks – the main being that philosophy, and social sciences, not to mention science, have developed significantly since that time, and no amount of secret brainwashing sects ruling the world can change that. It’s not a criticism aimed solely at Palmer – much of our modern SF literature seems to be more obsessed with the past than with what will come next, populating humanity’s future with artefacts from humanity’s history.

I kind of get Palmer’s obsession with the 18th century – it was a unique time, full of strange paradoxes, a brutal socio-economical as well as a psychological jump to a new era. It was an age of discovery and change, and of reaction to those. It was an age of heightened sensitivity, of exploration that might seem somewhat childish to us, tired inheritors of the 20th century, but back then must have felt fresh and daring. But that’s the problem, right there. We no longer live in the 18th century. Its attractiveness faded with time, its wickedness and ingenuity paled in comparison to what humanity did afterwards. I find it completely unbelievable that a core of 18th century reaction could not only parasitically thrive in the 25th century, but also rule the entire world from the shadows with the demonic force of sex. And because this is the central premise of Palmer’s Terra Ignota, I feel that the entire construction falls like a house of cards in front of my eyes. 

I guess this installment was supposed to be about various revelations – surprising reveals, dug out secrets, explained mysteries. But Palmer did such a great job of planting the signs to all those answers in the first installment that the big reveals – all except one, which was so over the top melodramatic that I strained some eye muscles from rolling – felt boring, too long, and full of pretentious exaltation. As such, the main themes, besides the obsession of the narrator with the Providence designing ever less likely scenarios in a fairly realistic world (poor man should have realised he was the product of a limited omnipotence of the author), were the author’s utmost preoccupation with sex/gender, and the woefully simplistic concept of war in a society that had forgotten what that truly means.

The fact that the shadowy tyrant of the Earth is in fact a woman who through her female wiles managed to seduce all the manly world leaders, and that they all fulfill her every wish because at some point or another they all put their appendages in her, and feel somehow obligated to indulge her is just laughable, sorry. I guess the moment Madame got to be compared to Diogenes was the breaking point for me. It’s a long way from Cynics to cynical, and misunderstanding the basics of philosophy while writing about philosophy is not something I can take lightly.

Same goes for war. I’m pretty sure I’d have enjoyed this novel much, much more if I weren’t a social scientist specialising in the phenomena of war and war trauma. But because I am, I couldn’t take in Palmer’s well-meant but terribly simplistic ideas of war with a straight face. Don’t get me wrong, she has every right to write what she thinks, to create all the imaginary worlds populated to offer her insights and opinions as a part of the Conversation she so longed to participate in – I just think that Seven Surrenders has nothing truly original or deep to offer in this regard. Feel free to disagree with me – Bart, for example, enjoyed this novel very much despite the flaws. But to me, it quickly turned into an exercise in futility.

Short note on the gendered pronouns that seem to be a large part of the discussion on Palmer’s books. I like the play she makes of it, the constant shifting of pronouns that indicates that for the narrator gender is much more important than sex. I think it’s a very valuable discussion to be had. That said, I feel that Palmer’s approach is flawed; the gender that Mycroft assigns to various characters is in itself a cultural product, a stereotype that can be as untrue and unbending as the rigid characteristics usually assigned to biological sex. So the question is, whose sensibilities are really represented by Mycroft? He was not a part of the Madame’s bash, he has awareness of the convention that shapes the gender/sex conversation, as well as exposure to the sex- and genderless 25th century society, and yet he applies the gender stereotypes that seem more a representation of the U.S. culture of the 21st century than anything else. Can we truly outgrow these categories and labels? Will our brains be able to evolve to a point when latching to the most easily noticeable difference and dichotomizing will not be the instinctive response to the world?

I still admire the amount of work that Palmer put into her novels. It is truly impressive, the ambition and the devotion. But to me, Seven Surrenders is like a Fabergé egg: an attractive work of art, intricate, byzantine and opulent, and, in the end, empty of meaning. 

Score: 3/10

20 thoughts on “Ada Palmer, Seven Surrenders (2017)

  1. Haha, you had some kind of allergic reaction against this novel. I loved it, even more than Too Like The Lightning. I gave it a 9.5/10. Crazy how our tastes sometimes completely align and sometimes not at all. I loved how the plot seems to be an argument between Peer Gods about direct benevolence and the existence of evil, with humanity stuck in the middle. All the events in this story can be seen from multiple perspectives. And each perspective says something different about Fate or the intentions of one God or the other. That blew my mind while reading.

    I admire Palmer for being a sharp thinker and have the guts and ambition to present a story like this. To me it sounded profound instead of cringey. The discussions also sounded more heartfelt. As the drama intensifies, all the characters’ intentions and loyalties become clearer, and it’s easier to feel for them. Bridger, for example, seems acutely aware of his own powers and can put in words his struggles with responsibility, and suddenly I feel what an unusual, extraordinary character he is. The same went for everyone else and their strange places in life.

    Even if all that rubs you the wrong way, the sheer power of this story’s melodramatic theatricality made for an amazing read, for me.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yeah, it’s weird how we react to stuff, sometimes exactly the same and sometimes in opposite ways. I don’t think I had an allergic reaction, though. I just felt most of it was total BS and with things like this you have to buy it to like it. I just couldn’t buy it. Even Bridger I felt to be a totally unrealistic representation of a teenager burdened with special power. I assume Palmer wanted to show Mycroft’s responsibility in raising him this way, but his character was just very unbelievable for me, godly powers or no. And because of this I so much more felt the artificiality of the entire suicide scene, where Bridger conveniently waits till Mycroft is out of hospital to dramatically erase himself from existence, leaving in their place a make-believe amalgam of fictional war heroes because that’s what the world needs. Ugh.
      Also, because I answered for myself most of the mysteries of the first installment, I missed the thrill of reveal – instead these parts of the book turned out boring and waaay overexplained to me.

      It’s interesting that you say there are peer gods here. I totally didn’t get that feeling – they all felt limited in some ways, maybe somewhat complimentary, more along the lines of Demiurge and Sophia from gnostic beliefs. Btw, Jedd’s sudden bloodthirsty flip felt totally out of character, too. Also, with how the story’s going, it wouldn’t surprise me if Jedd turned out to be an alien god lured to the human body by Madame performing Ouija board incantations or forbidden experiments with altered state of consciousness 😜 the problem is, I’m no longer interested 😉


  2. It is interesting to get another perspective from this other than girly squeals of love and adoration (sorry Bart and Jeroen 😉 )

    I was interested in this series until Bart wrapped things up and I realized I would hate this. And after your review of the first book, I knew it for sure. And I thought I was going to have to listen to another set of girly squeals, hahahahaa. So this came as quite the surprise.

    But thank you for detailing the why’s. While you and I disagree on a lot of things, knowing the why’s helps.

    So onward to more enjoyable things 😀

    Liked by 3 people

    1. It surprised me how much I disliked this book. I appreciated the first one, even if I didn’t love it, and I thought my experience with the sequel would be similar. But this second novel ended up taking all the things I didn’t like from the first book and doubling down on them. I guess what really bugged me, aside from stylistic choices, was the lack of acknowledgement of ambiguity and the simplistic approach to reality – these books are populated with people working single-mindedly for years to exact revenge for perceived slights, manipulated with the simplest of urges, following blindly the simplest causes because these fit nicely as rallying cries – and this simple causality rules everything and everyone. The characters show no growth, they’re just paper posters for Palmer’s ideas.

      Yeah, I’m pretty sure you’d hate these books 🤣

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I can totally understand your review. I even think you are right on most accounts. This is totally unbelievable BS for the most part, and I also had problems with some of the philosophical ideas – even more so in the final novel of the tetraology. But as I said, I just saw it all as theatrics, and got a good entertaining story out of it, cleverly constructed, interesting world building, with some really creative ideas to boot.

    I have to say, overall the series went downhill for me, sadly, as the first book held so much promise, but because of its weight & self-seriousness, it kinda failed in the end. My basic problem is that I simply don’t think Palmer’s main issue (theodicy) is interesting at all, and I also think Palmer didn’t manage to provide interesting answers to the mysteries she sets up in the first novel (most notably the nature of JEDD & Bridger, and some other small stuff). Maybe read my reviews for the remaining books for your own closure, and you’ll see what I mean.

    But I still think that as a testament to human creativity this series is outstanding, and it’s also amazing how Palmer, with the first book, managed to write a whodunnit without the readers realizing they were reading one only until the end.

    And as Jeroen said, truly baffling how we can at times align perfectly & differ so much at the same time qua taste.

    As for war science, atm I’m slowly reading ‘War: A Genealogy of Western Ideas and Practices’ by Beatrice Heuser, a book that came out last year. That might interest you. Not sure if I’ll finish it myself though, we’ll see.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think I’ll read your reviews for the final two books instead of reading the books themselves. I have soured considerably on this series and don’t have patience, or frankly any inclination, to continue – particularly in light of it becoming a series centred around the question of god, which, just as you, I find totally uninteresting (particularly the American perspective on it, sorry).

      I guess a big factor in our different final verdicts on this book is that I expect deep thought from books which try to tackle deep themes, not just entertainment – and I didn’t get either of those from Seven Surrenders. I think I’m also tired by what I see as rehashing old tropes, only in slightly different configurations. Human nature might be changing slowly, sure, but fixating on the past is not an answer; I don’t believe the future will be a direct re-render of the past, only with new toys, and so all those versions of the future which only reiterate the past I find boring and rather unoriginal. I can understand Herbert, he wrote his novels 70 years ago when feudal empires in space were new and daring. But I expect something more from contemporary authors.

      Haven’t read Heuser; do you find it good?


  4. “empty of meaning”… this sounds indeed like a death knell for the rest of the series, given that you had to struggle with yourself to finish the book. I’ve been curious about this series because I’ve read very contrasting reviews, but for some reason I seem to focus more intensely on the not-so-positive ones, which makes me wonder if that’s not some sort of warning from my “book vibes”. Still, I will have to see for myself one of these days… Thanks for sharing! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Sad that this did not work out for you Ola. Call me old fashioned, but I still do not get the whole pronoun shebang. Or should I cal it hebang now for fear of sounding sexist? itbang then…?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Theybang, I think – though don’t take my word for it, you may be accused of being dirty-minded instead of sexist 😛
      I don’t mind it, tbh – different authors have different ways of approaching this subject, and while none is ideal, it’s still worth talking about. It’s just this particular style only further cements the existing gender stereotypes 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  6. piotrek

    I love the cover 🙂 I’m also a bit relieved I can take one series off my list… I need to always wait for at least 2nd-3d book of the series before I add anything 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks, Lashaan! 😀

      Many people love it, so it’s probably largely a matter of taste and experience. I guess I’m very discerning when it comes to stuff touching on my area of expertise 😅

      That said, I don’t want to discourage anyone from trying it out! Maybe it will work better for you! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s