The Will to Battle by Ada Palmer
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I simply can’t say enough good things about the Terra Ignota series by Ada Palmer. My past reviews are gushingly full of a love that I struggle to articulate, I moderate a subreddit about the books, and I lend the first book out like a religious person lends a Bible: with the passionate fervor fueled by both a burning need to talk about the book and the belief that other people will truly be bettered by reading it. So I was surprised, but not too surprised, when I received an email through NetGalley offering me the chance to read the third book, The Will to Battle. They reached out to me – something I’ve never experienced before! The past few weeks have fulfilled all of my big ol’ nerd heart’s desires. I jumped straight from Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun series (which Palmer cites as a huge influence on her work) to The Will to Battle, and in the midst of reading it I attended Chessiecon in Baltimore, where Ada Palmer was guest of honor. I sat in on readings and discussions led by Palmer and got a set of books signed – including a hard copy of The Will to Battle, a full month early! So, full disclosure, I loved this series going into book three.
And it didn't disappoint! Where book two, Seven Surrenders, felt very much like a sequel necessary to complete the story of book one, TWTB is a new chapter; while it follows the same story and characters, it strides confidently into new settings and conflicts. The series continues to succeed where it has done well before, with Mycroft’s tricky narration supplying more intriguing - and alarming - deception as we finally see his growing instability unedited. Palmer methodically lays out the new starting grounds for who are all facing the fallout from public reveals of two separate nests of collusion while they struggle to ready their unprepared world for war and theological unrest.
Some of my favorite moments are first steps into new settings. The world is bigger and more wondrous as it provides glimpses of technology and history unseen in previous installments - and more legal minutiae than any book has a right to make so compelling! A simple walk through a Utopian neighborhood was so delightful that I re-read it half a dozen times before moving on. Several chapter-long courtroom dramas are as engrossing and dramatic as attempted murder, and I’m sure many die-hard fans (myself included) will be poring over those chapters for much longer looking for clues about the world.
The character work is strong, too. I’m impressed by how thoroughly and efficiently Palmer handles the large cast, although there are a few characters who are noticeably absent from all or most of this chapter (I suspect that’s a deliberate choice intended to make us think about what those characters are doing until we do meet them). There are beautiful moments of utter catharsis - a passage where a character chooses to finally live their dream had me weeping with the joyful possibility that there is always a way forward into the life you want. Even J.E.D.D. Mason, who is arguably the central character in this drama but is not high on my list of favorite characters in the series, now has goals (and some fascinating scenes with religious figures - a rare instance in a world with a religion taboo) that make him more exciting.
My only complaint would be that, after three books, it feels like we may be just at the beginning of the physical action, but at no point did I feel the story was slow, and I may just be trying to get more books out of the series. The book is called The Will to Battle, after all, and an interjection by Thomas Hobbes (yes, THE Thomas Hobbes) points out that the Will to Battle is not yet Battle itself, but it just as important. And for all the build-up surrounding Achilles’s importance to prepare for this battle, he felt underused. Hopefully we’ll see more of him in book four.
And, as always, we are left with so many questions - the kind I can't ask here, as they'd be full of spoilers - but check out the subreddit!!
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