The Will to Battle is the third installment of author Ada Palmer’s Terra
Ignota tetralogy. After reading Too Like the
Lightening and Seven
Surrenders, I opened it expecting some
answers and a bunch of new questions. I got both along with a few surprises.
The narrator is maybe the most compelling challenge. Mycroft Canner’s writing
style is by now familiar, which is not to say that it’s easy. It’s formal,
emotionally unstable, laden with rich metaphor, and intentionally abstruse when
it comes to gender. At the same time, it wouldn’t be Mycroft if you knew what
to expect. Thanks to a change in the conceit under which they’re writing, their
style retains that characteristic unpredictability. This underscores how little
they can be trusted and preserves an established tension. The Will To Battle
continues to force you to wonder about the morality of your guide and your own
sympathy toward them.
That said, The Will to Battle has fewer difficult themes, overall. There’s
less violence, less perversion, and less about family structure. Religion is
still central, but it’s pushed toward mysticism and feels far less
controversial as a result. There are also fewer asides on history and
philosophy. Scaling back these aspects tends to make The Will to Battle less
distinctive as a sci-fi novel, and for that, I was disappointed.
In an adventure series, such a shift would tend to pick up the pace. Here,
though, the void isn’t filled with alien
punching; Palmer instead dials up
their focus on politics. From senate conferences to backroom dealings and
alliance building, I was surprised by how little of the narrative is rooted in
science fiction. Despite what you’d expect, refocusing on more mundane themes
doesn’t slow this book down. That’s thanks to strengths that run deeper than
For one, the world of Terra Ignota continues to be deeply imaginative. Palmer
further complicates an already thorny editorial context because Mycroft is
describing events that took place while they were writing the precursors. This
enables a strange kind of editorial feedback loop where aspects of the prior
works are revealed to be informed by events in this one. And Palmer continues
to enrich the setting with detail on the culture, technology, and made-up
“history” of a future Earth.
It’s not just the world-building, though; the restraint on display is
incredible. Some questions raised in the first book are only now answered, and
others linger, still. Characters that have so far been central to the plot
receive only a few pages of attention–it’s appropriate for the story, but it
can’t be easy for an author to mute familiar voices. And just when it looks
like Palmer has succumbed to a literary trope, they slyly subvert it (much to
the benefit of this installment’s resolution, such as it is).
With all this detail doled out over years of writing, I found myself wondering,
“How does anyone make something like this?” I could only draw a comparison to
Olympic athletes, likely thanks to the events of the book. Those performers
demonstrate undeniable but rarefied expertise. Watching them in their element
challenges your assumptions about your own potential. Reading Palmer
methodically unpack this story is no less inspiring.