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I hadn't heard of Ada Palmer's debut novel Too Like The Lightning until I saw it in the list of nominations for this year's Best Novel Hugo. Because I'm trying to read more SFF by women writers I looked it up, and the idea of an eighteenth-century novel set in 2454 was so irresistible I ordered a copy straight away.

As "an eighteenth-century novel set in 2454" suggests, it is a mindbogglingly strange read in places, but I also found it wonderful and exhilarating. One of the things I love most about reading SF is the way it can plunge you into a completely different world, trying to work out the rules from context, and this book does that in spades; the first few chapters made me feel quite dizzy.

Once I'd got into it a bit, I got a better handle on the world and could concentrate instead on the huge cast of characters and the twisty plot, though in fact, despite the twistiness, there isn't really that much plot; I knew there was a sequel but it really feels like one book that's been published in two volumes and I was left feeling that this one was mostly setup. Annoyingly, although the second book has been published it's not out in paperback until November, and I really dislike hardbacks on grounds of portability (though the paperback of the first one was a massive trade paperback and not a normal-sized book, so was a pain to squeeze into my bag as it was); it doesn't have a UK publisher so unfortunately an ebook isn't an option.

In keeping with the eighteenth-century style, this is definitely a novel of ideas. Obviously, I was particularly interested by the way gender is treated. The twenty-fifth century society Palmer imagines is basically post-gender, so the only acceptable pronouns are they/their; gendered pronouns and behaviours are seen as intensely sexual and definitely kinky, if not perverted. However, the narrator uses "archaic" gendered language, and gives enough physical description to indicate most characters' biological sex (which doesn't always align with their assigned gender); this makes it clear that the elimination of gendered language hasn't actually eliminated the tendency for people who are biologically male to be in positions of power and people who are biologically female to be seen as nurturing and caring. Other interesting threads address the position of religion in a society which has banned organised religion in order to end religiously-motivated violence and crime, punishment and atonement. There are frequent references to the philosophers of the Enlightenment, and the plot seems to be driving towards a depiction of a similarly radical shift in Palmer's future society.

I'd say the Hugo nomination was definitely deserved here, and I look forward to reading the next book (and note that a third is shown as due out in hardback this autumn, too).
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