Review: Notes from the Burning Age – Claire North

Review: Notes from the Burning Age – Claire NorthNotes from the Burning Age
by Claire North
Publisher: Orbit
Publication Date: July 20, 2021
Genres: Science Fiction
Pages: 401
Source: NetGalley

I received this book for free from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.

My rating: One StarOne StarOne StarOne StarOne Star

From one of the most imaginative writers of her generation comes an extraordinary vision of the future…

Ven was once a holy man, a keeper of ancient archives. It was his duty to interpret archaic texts, sorting useful knowledge from the heretical ideas of the Burning Age—a time of excess and climate disaster. For in Ven's world, such material must be closely guarded so that the ills that led to that cataclysmic era can never be repeated.

But when the revolutionary Brotherhood approaches Ven, pressuring him to translate stolen writings that threaten everything he once held dear, his life will be turned upside down. Torn between friendship and faith, Ven must decide how far he's willing to go to save this new world—and how much he is willing to lose.

Notes from the Burning Age is the remarkable new novel from the award-winning Claire North that puts dystopian fiction in a whole new light.

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Content notes: View Spoiler »

If this book does not win a ton of awards, I will be truly disappointed. Climate change science fiction (I’ve heard it called cli-fi but I’m not sold on that name) isn’t anything new, as evidenced by last year’s The Year’s Best Science Fiction and N.K. Jemisin’s stellar “Emergency Skin.” But where this author truly excels is twisty plot and excellent characterization. Where most of those stories felt like far in the future scifi, this one felt in many ways startling immediate.

“Our ancestors were so clever, so powerful. They were not afraid of fire.”
“But they burned,” he replied. A gentle nudge, a casual correction. “They all burned.”
“The kakuy burned them. If the kakuy hadn’t risen, maybe they could have tamed the world. Maybe they could.”
He sucked in his teeth, long and slow. “Now that does sound like heresy.”

Ven was kicked out of the priesthood for selling the heretical information he was supposed to catalog. These remnants of the Burning Age – when humans consumed profligately, uncaring of the effects of their actions on the world – can be as innocuous as cat pictures or as harmful as nerve agents and fracking. In these more enlightened times, mankind lives in harmony with the Earth, doing things like planting a tree for each one cut down and relying on solar power. They believe everything natural has a spirit, even rocks, and worship giant spirits known as kakuy. These are the creatures who their religion says woke and nearly destroyed human civilization before, and failing to respect nature again will have them return in flame and fire (my brain had too much fun drawing parallels to the dwarves in Moria and the Balrog!). But the Brotherhood is pushing those boundaries, believing that it’s mankind’s destiny to conquer nature, and it’s one of their leaders who blackmails Ven into translating stolen documents for Georg, one of the party’s behind-the-scenes leaders. As Ven gets deeper and deeper into the Brotherhood operation, it’s soon obvious that there’s more than just his life on the line if he tries to escape.

And that’s as much as I can say without giving away too much. It’s the twists that sell this story. It’s a philosophical thriller at heart, and Ven is our mostly competent and amazing brave narrator, though he’d never describe himself that way. I loved him immensely and cared way too much about what happened to him. The prologue (set in his home village of Tinics) is an event from his childhood that shaped his life, but exactly how – and how profoundly – is something it takes the entire book for you to realize. The regular part of the book started off slowly, but after the first chapter or so, I was drawn into his first-person POV and simply couldn’t put the book down. There are vignettes from the book that keep popping into my head, little scenes like Ven interacting with a Jewish family (though it’s not specifically called out on page) or a tense moment in the ruins of a coal mine. Ven is at times witty or despairing, but the prose is always emotionally resonant, deeply evocative of the dystopian landscape that he lives in and feels connected to. It’s imaginative and encompassing, and finishing the book felt like saying goodbye to a dear friend.

“The kakuy teach us that every breath of air is a gift, that the first shoot of spring green is a wonder to behold. But it is easier to be big and loud in your terror than to be tiny in your gratitude. We are to blame.”

Interspersed with the espionage and terror and joy, this is a book about how humanity interacts with nature, whether we conquer nature or live in concert with it. The Temple understands that without nature there is no life – and without death, there is no life either. But it’s harder for people like Georg to accept that are people are equal to ants in the eyes of nature, and his brand of humanism further perpetuates the haves and have-nots we see in our own societies today. Perhaps it’s not so strange that the insistence on dominating the earth also usually goes hand-in-hand with subjugating other humans. The book highlights both the small impacts and societal impacts of climate change, whether it’s one of the fellow Brotherhood workers that Ven contemplates a fling with, or the lives of all the Temple novices in Vien; whether the time scale is life and untimely death of a child or the hundreds of years it took to recover from the Burning; whether it’s a lowly temple priest drinking tea or a kakuy prowling in the deep woods.

“I saw the forest burn, when I was young.”

Overall, it’s no exaggeration to say that this will easily be in my top 3 books of the year. It’s thought-provoking, emotionally resonant, and just a plain old thrilling read. Highly recommended!

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