Hermetic Library Fellow T Polyphilus reviews Perhaps the Stars [Amazon, Bookshop, Publisher, Local Library] by Ada Palmer, book 4 of Terra Ignota.
This fourth book of Terra Ignota provides a conclusion worthy of what has come before. It is longer than any of the previous volumes by at least 50%, and it involves more narrative lacunae and changes of style. It does not resolve all of the enigmas raised in previous books, nor even those opened within its own pages, but it does complete the story and give it greater context and significance.
Terra Ignota has an unreliable and culpable narrator addressing himself to a posterity even further removed from the (actual) reader, but represented by a Reader character whose identity is in some measure disclosed at the end. It entertains metaphysics and vaults into the very highest political arenas of its imagined world. For these reasons and others, it has invited comparison to Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun, and Ada Palmer has admitted to her admiration for Wolfe’s work. There is an especially Wolfean development in this final volume when . . . . . . . . (hover over to reveal) . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Poignantly, Wolfe died in 2019 as Palmer was finishing Perhaps the Stars, which has for a recurring theme the ways in which the death of the writer is neither the death of the author nor the death of the story.
I feel petty to notice it, but there is grammatical tic that recurs through all the volumes of Terra Ignota: the use of nominative pronouns where objective ones are called for in subordinate formulae at the tail end of sentences, like: “Who knew that such things could happen to we who had accomplished so much?” As I saw this oddness repeat, I grew to wonder whether it was Palmer or Canner who was to blame, and if the latter, what it could portend. It certainly seems wrong that the academically-accomplished writer of these books should have included such nonstandard English as mere error.
The scale and complexity of these books are impressive. They are still new, and I think that they will have staying power to gain in popularity and acclaim, like the Book of the New Sun and Herbert’s Dune books. Attempts at scholarly criticism and substantial intellectual response began already after the release of the second book Seven Surrenders. I was not surprised to find out that there is a fan wiki to attempt to trace the sometimes bewildering details of character, place, and plot, but disappointed to discover that it is still sparsely populated.
I would advise prospective readers of Terra Ignota to view the four books as a single work and avoid setting it aside between volumes–perhaps especially between the third and fourth books where there was in fact a delay in publication. Do not skip past the fanciful-seeming publication conditions and dramatis personae front matter in each book. These supply important (p)reviews of the social structures, factions, stakes, and characters. If you’ve never read Homer, or if it’s just been decades, consider reading an encyclopedia article for an overview of the Illiad and the Odyssey. Ditto for Thomas Hobbes and his Leviathan, and perhaps Voltaire and Diderot to boot.