Book review: Notes From the Burning Age by Claire North

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

You would think after hundreds of thousands of years of evolution and the concomitant civilisation building that goes with it, that humanity would have learnt from its past mistakes and found a way to not repeat them ad infinitum.

But this appears not to be the case with the twentieth century alone demonstrating that we can have one cataclysmic world war and still not get it into our self-destructive heads that a second one may not be in our best interests nor it seems, if Notes From the Burning Age by the impressively talented Claire North, learn that plunging ourselves into ruinous climate change should not be repeated in any way, shape or form.

In this dystopian master tale, set hundreds into the future, humanity has seemingly learnt from its coal-burning, technology-advancing mistakes and fallen into a harmony with the environment where the spiritual vigour of the land, which takes the form of kakuy, who may or not be real beings but whose widely believed existence fuels a major belief system through the Provinces of what was Eastern Europe (roughly Bulgaria and Romania into eastern Turkey), is respected to a wholly granular level.

Cars and trucks are all powered by electricity, the forests have been allowed to grow back and the exhumation of fossil fuels is expressly banned, a prohibition made easier by the fact that in the fall of indulgent plenty of what has come to be known as the Burning Age, much of the knowledge of the old world was lost.

What remains or has been unearthed in vaults often hidden deep within the earth by those who sought to keep the knowledge of the past in humanity’s hands, is zealously guarded by the Medj, a religious order whose temples fill the various provinces and whose edicts about nurturing nature and not falling back into the industrially destructive ways of the past are largely respected.

“On my fifth encounter, I was summoned at 4 a.m. to a hearth near the old palace gardens. It was one of the few fully restored buildings of the old world, complete with tiny blue and green tiles woven into a zig-zag pattern across the floor, banisters of twisted iron, high windows of pure, not even solar, glass, and more than two or three people living in it. I struggled to imagine inhabiting such a place, uncertain if I should walk on veined white stone or thick red carpet – or how many offerings had been made to the kakuy of earth and sky in thanks for the precious goods that built such a place. Not enough, I suspected. The mind that crafted such things did not have much capacity for humility before the sleepy spirit of the mountain.” (P. 49)

We say largely because in the renegade province of Maze, the revolutionary Brotherhood has begun to preach a gospel of human empowerment, one which draws upon the seductive idea that people deserve more than tofu and trees and can have possessions, power, hierarchy and excess, and that, indeed, it is their birthright.

Clearly, one thing that has never gone away, is humanity’s capacity for being its own self interest serving enemy, and Notes From the Burning Age, which takes its title from the translation of the caches of residual knowledge hidden everywhere on hard-to-access servers which are written in archaic languages like English, French and German, make its clear how little the human collective has changed at some fundamental levels in the last few hundred years.

But even with the rise of the Brotherhood and its heretical ways, which wrongly supposes all knowledge and useful when much of it, it is wryly pointed out, consists of selfies and empty, pointless texts, there remains a considerable body of true believers, among them Ven, a onetime holy man who finds himself, through a series of events, as the chief translator of this knowledge for the Brotherhood who are murderously and ruthlessly intent on subjugating all others to their oil-pumping, tank-building vision of a future which looks an awful like our messy, broken present.

Claire North ( image courtesy Hachette Australia)

With that in mind, priestly scholars like Ven, who is lot more complicated a person we discover than he first lets on, are the guardians of knowledge so powerful, and yet also so banal, that it could, in the wrong hands, usher in another apocalyptic age like the one that brought down the previous burning age of man.

He, of course, ends up with not a lot of choice when it comes to assisting the Brotherhood, and he comes to know the leader of the group, Georg, better, in all his mercurial, dangerous glory, he has to, again and again, make a decision of what he is willing to do to save this world he loves, which is in grave danger of falling to same sins that blighted humanity’s earlier industrial era.

As we journey with Ven through what can only be described as a jaw-droppingly brilliant narrative that benefits from some stunningly good worldbuilding, Notes From the Burning Age reveals itself as a tour de force of post-climate change storytelling that has some wildly prescient ideas of where our addiction to possessions and plenty might take us.

It will not surprise you to learn that they are, on the whole, not very good places.

“I want to go back to Georg.

I want to sit with him and tell him: You never find what you expect when you dig through the archives. You want nuclear fission and geoengineering. You want oil refineries and investment banking prime-mortgage re-packaged bonds. You want pesticides and herbicides and humanicides and a way to kill the kakuy.

But look, look. Here’s what you get.

Three pictures of different kinds of food shared between friends, an out-of-focus shot of two lovers sticking their tongues out at the camera, a screenshot of an ex-boyfriend’s stupid text message to share with friends, because you can’t believe he’d say that shit.

Here’s the history of the world for you.

Here’s what the burning left behind.

You want gods, and all you get are people.” (P. 377)

While there is a bucolic harmony to the world of the Medj and the bond between humanity and the Kakuy, who are revered yes but also invoked like parents might invoke a bogeyman to get their children to behave, there is also a rigorous and often stultifying enforcement of belief that is perhaps holding humanity back.

But the solution is likely not what the Brotherhood proposes and enacts, a return to past practices that gives every indication of not being any more successful than when humanity last gave it a go.

What truly gives substance and heart, and a palpitating sense of intrigue to Notes From the Burning Age is the deeply emotive way that North tells the story of Ven, and those with whom he is friend, enemy or indeterminate, and how she brings alive his struggle to straddle two worlds while very much remaining loyal to one.

You will love how grounded and honest he is, how well he sticks to what he believes in while also doing what pragmatically must be done, and you will be enthralled by the story that unfolds around him, a tale so riveting and page-turningly engrossing that Notes From the Burning Age quickly becomes one of those novels, like all of North’s other work including The End of the Day, 84K and The Pursuit of William Abbey (which also features a fantastically supernatural flavour to it), that you remember long after you turn its last explosive age.

Notes From the Burning Age has it all – astonishingly evocative writing redolent with the beauty and descriptiveness of the very best of the English language, characters so startlingly well-wrought that they feel flesh and blood to leap off the map, a cleverly imaginative and thoughtfully intense vision of the future and a story that shows us that the very worst and the very best of us might yet persist, even hundred of years in the future and we will be forced to make a decision about what matters most to us as a species and what we are willing to do to save it.

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