Notes from the Burning Age, Claire North (Orbit 978-0-316-4988-49883-8, $14.99, 448pp, tp) July 2021.
Having garnered a World Fantasy and a Campbell Award under her Claire North pseudonym, it probably shouldn’t be surprising that the prolific English writer Catherine Webb should turn her unique vision to climate fiction. As others have discovered before her, however, the generations-long trashing of our planet is, by itself, pretty unwieldy as a plot device. As a result, the “burning age” of her Notes from the Burning Age is actually several centuries before the action of the novel, and what notes we get from that period come in the form of fragments from a distant past – religious documents written in a kind of faux-King James English, a few old books, and whatever data and archives the narrator, Ven Marzouki, was able to glean from ancient servers and hard drives in his previous position as linguist, translator, and priest. Now, however, having been caught stealing and selling prohibited information from those sources, Ven is working under an assumed name as a bartender in the old city of Vien, where he finds himself pinned to the bar by a team of goons from something called the Justice and Equality Brotherhood, who are threatening to cut off his thumb. Vien, we might reasonably assume, is meant to be a degraded form of Vienna, since the river that runs through it is the Ube (Danube?), its most famous composer is “Mozert,” and other regional cities are Praha, Budapesht, and Bukarest.
The Brotherhood isn’t really after Ven’s thumb, though, so much as they’re after thumb drives. Their Godfather-like leader, Georg Mestri, is interested in Ven’s skills as a translator of archaic texts and old media, including such things as weapons manuals, assassination techniques, and weaponized viruses – the kinds of information deemed heretical by the Council that serves as the central government of the region. As Ven is drawn deeper into the Brotherhood’s schemes to revive old technology and even terrorist techniques in order to challenge the authority of the Council – and presumably restore some of the more nefarious practices of the old Burning Age – he makes himself almost indispensable to Georg – though the two of them never quite trust each other, and their cat-and-mouse game becomes the most compelling character relationship of the novel. It’s not long before the Council and the Brotherhood both discover spies in their midst, and Ven comes under suspicion from both sides, in a kind of spy-vs-spy plot that powers much of the central part of the novel.
North’s setting is as interesting as her plot, and she pointedly introduces a mythic, almost religious dimension that at times recalls earlier postapocalyptic classics like A Canticle for Leibowitz. The “Burning Age” itself reminded me of Miller’s “Flame Deluge” (which of course was one of those nuclear spasms I mentioned earlier), and the manner in which North’s priesthood has incorporated that past catastrophe into its holy texts also echoes Miller’s devout monks. And, like Miller, North raises the question of whether, even having reached a comparatively stable society, humanity would be tempted to repeat its original sin (nuclear war in Miller, anthropocentric environmental hubris in North). While not quite a utopia, the city of Vien sounds pretty pleasant:
… the streets are clean, broad, and practical. Bicycle paths weave between the courtyard-shrouding hearths, old brick mixed with new mycelium and solar cell, creating a jigsaw of beige, white, crimson and grey. From the bathhouses and communal halls the morning smell of pine, yeast and tea… mingled with polite chatter and discrete silences between courteous people.
All of this is threatened, of course, by a potential war between Georg’s Brotherhood and the Council currently in power. Nature isn’t entirely a pawn, however: mystical nature spirits called kakuy – “angels, or devils, guardian voi or djinn of fire and sea”– protect forests, rivers, and mountains, and some view them as responsible for the disasters of the Burning Age to begin with, acting as nature’s antibodies. As a child, Ven believes he saw one during a massive forest fire, which also separated him from his childhood friend Yue – who later will turn out to be the third most interesting figure in the novel, serving more or less as Ven’s better angel. North manages to bring all these conflicts to a head in a spectacular and satisfying conclusion that completes a fiery circle that began with that childhood vision. Notes from the Burning Age may not feature the sort of easily grasped conceit familiar from some of North’s earlier novels – alternate lives, invisibility, world-changing games – but it’s a passionate and committed vision of what we do to nature, and what it can do to us.
Gary K. Wolfe is Emeritus Professor of Humanities at Roosevelt University and a reviewer for Locus magazine since 1991. His reviews have been collected in Soundings (BSFA Award 2006; Hugo nominee), Bearings (Hugo nominee 2011), and Sightings (2011), and his Evaporating Genres: Essays on Fantastic Literature (Wesleyan) received the Locus Award in 2012. Earlier books include The Known and the Unknown: The Iconography of Science Fiction (Eaton Award, 1981), Harlan Ellison: The Edge of Forever (with Ellen Weil, 2002), and David Lindsay (1982). For the Library of America, he edited American Science Fiction: Nine Classic Novels of the 1950s in 2012, with a similar set for the 1960s forthcoming. He has received the Pilgrim Award from the Science Fiction Research Association, the Distinguished Scholarship Award from the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts, and a Special World Fantasy Award for criticism. His 24-lecture series How Great Science Fiction Works appeared from The Great Courses in 2016. He has received six Hugo nominations, two for his reviews collections and four for The Coode Street Podcast, which he has co-hosted with Jonathan Strahan for more than 300 episodes. He lives in Chicago.
This review and more like it in the July 2021 issue of Locus.
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