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Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North

Novel, Orbit, 2021
Read 1/22/2022, print, first read

Image from Orbit

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.

Description from Storygraph

I haven’t read North’s earlier books, so this was my introduction to her work. Having read this one, I’m still left unsure of whether I actually liked it or not. Not all books need to be liked, I think. Some challenge the reader instead, and some go out of their way to alienate the reader. Similarly, not all books have or need an argument, a philosophical or moral through-line. 

But in the case of Notes from the Burning Age, there’s something about the seriousness of the themes and occasional archness of the narrative which made me feel that this book is one that wants to be liked and wants to put forth an argument. I’m not sure it quite does either successfully. 

Then again, maybe I’m not the best reader for this whole genre. Near future fiction is not as interesting to me as other types of speculative fiction, because the mirror of our era is often too obvious. The themes and even cultural references are more about 2021 than they are about representing another culture. Where are the references to things that haven’t happened yet? The history that comes between our time and theirs? 

This kind of setting can be done well (I do love LeGuin’s version in Always Coming Home, and Connie Willis’ historian books). Unfortunately, here it felt a bit haphazard in terms of what has survived to Ven’s age. 

At the same time, I was gripped by the plot and Ven’s almost accidental careening from one disaster to another. In some ways, he’s a rather passive main character, but the banked fires of his dedication and belief are compelling nonetheless. North pulls off an interesting sleight of hand trick with his character that I’m still thinking about. 

Other reviews
Jason Sheehan at NPR
Gary K Wolfe at Locus
Armed with A Book

More on the book
Claire North in conversation with N.K. Jemisin

Previously
Recovery Reading: Sarah Caudwell (2018)
A Spark of White Fire by Sangu Mandanna (2019)

By Maureen LaFerney

My name is Maureen. I currently work as a library assistant in a public library in the Indianapolis area, and also just so happen to be a voracious reader. I frequently end up under a cat.

3 replies on “Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North”

A question: Do you think I would like this? I started reading it, got immediately bored, and set it down for now with the intention of going back to it. My record with Claire North is so mixed, though! I looooved Touch, and I’ve quite liked some of her other books, though none as much as I liked Touch.

You know, I’m not sure! I suspect that if you got bored, it’s probably not worth going back, but then I’m also on team Set That Book Down.

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