Completed 6/4/2017 Reviewed 6/5/2017
Reading this book was one of the most unenjoyable experiences of my literary life. It made me feel stupid. It was so complex, I could really only follow one of the plotlines. The other plotlines lost me by about the hundredth page. I finished the book, hoping for some clarity. Little came. I think the only reason I understood the book as much as I did was because I read lots and lots of reviews for the book and I looked for the cues in the text to reinforce the understanding I got from those reviews. For my review, I’ll do the best I can conveying the plot summaries.
The setting is four hundred years in the future when there are no more nations. People belong to one of seven global organizations which provide a sort of citizenship, but can live anywhere they want. There are no gender references. Everyone is referred to by they or them. However the narrator refers to the characters as he or she depending on the behavioral characteristics of the person, not the physical gender. For the most part, the gender references are easy to follow.
The main plot, I think, is that there is a thirteen year old “boy”, Bridger, who has the ability to imbue life in inanimate objects, for example a doll or plastic soldiers. He is being kept and hidden by a powerful family unit, protecting him from the outside world where they fear people will use Bridger’s powers for evil before good. The story of the boy is being told by Mycroft Canner, a criminal who has been sentenced to walk the earth doing good things for others. He (I think Mycroft is a he) spends a lot of time with this family. He provides a lot of support and holds the trust of Bridger.
The narrator also conveys the other plot, which dominates the book, but I think is supposed to be secondary to Bridger’s story. This plot is about the theft of a list of the most influential people on Earth. This list bears great influence and the theft is a society-shattering event. Considering this took up most of the book, this is what lost me. This mystery is shrouded in political intrigue, which I found completely boring.
The form of this book is that it is supposed to be written as a piece of eighteenth century literature, including the narrator speaking to the audience and the audience answering back. This breaking of the fourth wall was sometimes interesting, but often annoying. It made the following of the complicated intrigue that much more difficult.
I also didn’t like the prose. Rather than helping the scene, I often found it distracting and occasionally pompous. At times it reminded me of Michael Chabon, looking for new similes to use in his descriptions. Once or twice, you stop and think, “Oh, that’s an interesting way to describe this” but then after a while, you just feel like Palmer is simply showing off. For me, there’s a fine line between good and obnoxious prose. It’s tough to describe where that line is, but this crossed it.
There are a lot of characters in the book. Palmer spends a lot of time explaining what they’re wearing. It was tough to actually imagine the characters because you didn’t know if the character was male or female, so the type of clothing worn often seemed irrelevant. In addition to the live characters, Palmer brings in several philosophers of the eighteenth century including Voltaire, Rousseau, and the Marquis de Sade. I actually enjoyed some of the philosophy talk. But even that got to be too much. I often lost the point of bringing up the philosopher to begin with.
I give this book one stars out of five. In my opinion, it is just too complicated a story for me. Too many characters, too much politics, too many plot lines, and a challenging form. And I don’t like being made to feel stupid. I know a lot of people love it or hate it, but apparently enough people loved it to get it a Hugo nomination. I wouldn’t vote for it.