Orbit, 22 July 2021
Available as: HB, 403pp, e, audio
Source: ARC kindly provided free by the publisher
I'm grateful to Orbit for an advance review copy of Notes from the Burning Age to read and consider for review.
Before I start this review I should probably declare a bias - I adore Claire North's books and I've been loving her novels exploring individuals with weird abilities, or curses. Notes from the Burning Age is a little different, featuring ordinary people albeit in a weird future, but I still came to it expecting brilliance and I wasn't disappointed.
Fiction reflecting and commenting on the environmental catastrophe being visited right now on the planet has never been more important... or harder to do. Given the scale of what is happening, there is a sense in which all future, or near future, set fiction must be climate/ environmental fiction. But authors face challenges. Make it unremittingly gloomy, and readers might stay away. But implying it's a trivial problem, easily solved, would be reckless and unrealistic.
In Notes from the Burning Age, North finds an ingenious solution. The book is set some way in the future - hundreds of years - in an era when people can look back to our "burning age" and judge it. From that perspective, they can report the catastrophe, but without living it. We can also see that, despite losses, humankind has found ways to mitigate its impact on the planet, limitations to prevent a repeat of the disaster. The book is full of fascinating detail about these, from dependence on bicycles and electric vehicles and use of solar, wind and tidal power, to building techniques using reasons instead of cement to a system of religion and ethics intended to stress interdependence with nature. This is propagated by the Medj priesthood, who 'bowed to each tree in turn and made libations to the kakuy whose gift they were receiving'.
This elusive concept of the kakuy is key to the civilization depicted here. Perhaps gods, perhaps demons, perhaps innate spirits of the forests, the mountains, the seas, the kakuy may be a pious myth, a real and ferocious force that rose in anger when humans defaced the earth, or a personification of the chaos and harm that came from that defacement. The Medj teaching is focussed on not rousing them again - if gods, they are gods who have no regard for Mankind, regarding us an irritant at best. Ancient religions flourish alongside this cult - at one point a character is rescued and sheltered by a Jewish community, and the domes on ancient mosques and churches still stand over the city of Isdanbul - but they are peripheral.
Ven, the main character in Notes from the Burning Age, is a disgraced former member of the Medj, but hedges his bets about the kakuy. Others, ambitious men (mostly) who chafe under the limitations imposed following the Burning, do not believe, or actively despise the idea. Humanity is paramount, they insist, and only harm can come from denying that essential fact. The book, then, looks both back - at our burning age - and forward - at a potential future one, as humanity, like a dog returning to its vomit, forgets lessons learned and plots harm again. We see this as environmental destruction, seemingly undertaken to demonstrate human mastery, gathers pace. The story, from one perspective, is therefore a set of notes from the "future" burning age, to ours.
Located in Central Europe, the story depicts a loose federation of seven provinces supposedly united under a Council to ensure that "heresies" (the use of destructive, historic technologies) stay suppressed. It isn't clear whether similar conditions obtain elsewhere - there are brief mentions of the 'Anglaes islands' and their 'purity laws' and of an 'Amerika' with 'militia forts'. The the province of Maze is however flexing its strength, overturning the laws adopted for safety and to prevent the kakuy rising. Ven is close to that process, having fetched up as personal assistant to Georg Mestri, the power behind the Brotherhood, a social and political force dedicated to human potential (and to founding an empire with Maze at its head).
Despite his background in the Medj, Ven comes to admire Georg, for whom he translates ancient documents, stolen by the Brotherhood, describing banned technologies (and including a lot of other rubbish scoured from ancient hard drives - Ven's background has given him some skill in recognising what might be useful). More "notes", this time from our "burning age" to the future one. From this position Ven's able to describe the rapid slide of Maze into militaristic dictatorship and then war, and the progress of espionage between the two sides, espionage that may make the difference in an otherwise uneven war. The book has plenty of excitement, with a mole hunt going on, conflicted loyalties, and a lot at risk on either side. That makes it a pacey and exciting read, even as North refuses to skimp detail of the environmental damage done in our time, and which is starting up again. Her descriptions of shrines made from ancient, sea-washed plastics, of part-ancient, part reconstructed buildings or of simply Medj shrines, and always arresting and often beautiful.
Hovering over everything in Notes from the Burning Age are moral choices, the foremost of which is perhaps, how much damage must one accept to preserve peace? In this book the environmentally sensitive way of life of the other provinces is threatened by Maze's revanchism. Will the other provinces receive enough warning? If they do, will they be willing too act? Indeed, how can they act when they believe that warfare will wake the kakuy and bring ruin again? Again, placing the action in the future makes the story more palatable since it isn't finger-pointing at us, here, now - even if in reality we face similar dilemmas.
Notes from the Burning Age shows how these choices are inescapable, and perhaps, that there are no good options. It's chock full of ideas, and North is able to paint even her villains as sympathetic (in a certain light) and her heroes as distinctly tarnished, ambiguous types. The dialogue is often brilliant (it always is in this author's books, but even so, here it's superb) with several layers of subtext to the conversations, and the action-y parts of the book (of which there are many) have the urgency and pace of a thriller.
In short, I think Notes from the Burning Age is a joy to read, and shows North evolving as an author to address difficult themes as well as serving up a rollicking good story. I would strongly recommend it.
For more information about Notes From The Burning Age see the publisher's website here or any of the stops on the tour poster below.