3 of 5 stars
This is going to be a hard review to write, because even after finishing this book, I'm not sure I liked it. I didn't hate it, and I was definitely fascinated by it, but I can't even say I really enjoyed it. It's a difficult, frustrating, dense, hard-to-understand read, and several times through the slow, sagging middle I almost put it down. However, Ada Palmer must be one of the best writers I have ever read, because despite all this, with my looking for any excuse to stop reading, she would write one more scene I had to finish, and one more...and before I knew it, I had turned the last page of the book.
I will say one thing, this is unlike any SF book I have ever read. It's a far-future (four centuries, to be exact) tale that's nearly impossible to categorize. Is it, as I have heard it described, a dystopia masquerading as its opposite? Is it a 25th century history text? Philosophy text? A detailed, deep-dive discussion of the Enlightenment? Or a thinly disguised retelling of the French Revolution, with the addition of a kid who can work unexplained, seemingly supernatural miracles? Complete with an unreliable narrator who often breaks the fourth wall and frequently has arguments with his reader, who he assumes is looking back on the world of 2454 with as much distance as ours is removed from Voltaire, the most frequently mentioned philosopher in these pages? Said narrator, Mycroft Canner, is revealed to be quite a nasty piece of work, and yet you can't help feeling sorry for him. I didn't like him, but I could certainly understand him, which is a testament to the author's skill.
You would have to read this book at least twice to even begin to digest it. Frankly, I'm not sure if I can do that. I normally wail and gnash my teeth over infodumps, and with the exception of the final eight chapters, that's basically all this book is. Yet it held me riveted, and not in a trainwreck kind of way, either. I don't know if I'll dare attempt the sequel...but I don't know if I'll be able to resist.