It’s been days since I finished Claire North’s newest book, Notes From The Burning Age, and I am still angry at it. Not because North did anything wrong, but just because there isn’t more of it.
And I don’t mean a few more pages, a couple more scenes. I want heaps. I want volumes. I want to go back to my Kindle, open it up and see that, magically, its 450 pages have become a thousand. I spent a handful of late nights and early mornings in the ruined, rescued and re-ruined world that North has made of our own not-terribly-distant future. They were good days. There was a strange sense of peace in them — of sliding into a fantastical nightmare so skillfully sketched that it felt like truth. And when it was done, I simply didn’t want to leave.
Which is weird, sure. Who doesn’t want to abandon a nightmare? But Notes is compelling because it is beautiful. Because it is a mess, skillfully rendered, with a recognizable past (our own) and a believable present witnessed primarily by three characters who aren’t just living through it, but actively shaping it.
North (the spaceships-and-dystopias pen name of the scarily prolific Catherine Webb) opens amid disaster — three children on an Edenic summer afternoon, playing amid the sacred trees, carefully tended shrines, solar panels and compression batteries of a world that has delicately scratched its way back from the brink.
The Burning Age of the title? That’s us. That’s today. The period of human history when we decided that the earth and everything on it was a resource that could be exploited without consequence, mastered by men and machines and nations that became increasingly insular and increasingly desperate as those resources began to run dry.
At some point, the earth rebels. The Kakuy — spirits of everything from an entire forest or ocean to a single tree — rise and wipe humanity away. They are not gods, but a kind of secular defense mechanism: Careless of right or wrong, faith or agnosticism, deaf to pleas, blind to sacrifice. They are enormous monsters that embody their element, existing only to remove the infection of human avarice from the systems of the world.
Oh, and also? They might not actually exist.
See, information from the Burning Age is spotty at best. It exists in the ruin of the past — in landfills and trash middens, in hard drives and server farms that survived fire and flood and devastation, in a precious few vaults of Burning Age data. The Kakuy are the boogeymen of the past, the warning tended to by a quasi-priestly order that now collects and curates information from the Burning Age, deciding what knowledge will benefit humanity and what is forbidden, how to keep a balance between man and nature.
In North’s pure and early Eden, there is a fire. An accident that consumes the forest surrounding a village. The three children run. One of them dies. The other two — Ven and Yue — survive. In the midst of the conflagration, one of them (Ven) sees the Kakuy of the forest. He watches it die. The other (Yue) sees only fire.
Ven becomes a priest, Yue a politician. Ven learns dead languages and becomes a translator of Burning Age documents and data, is booted from the priesthood for stealing heretical information and selling it, ends up disgraced, working as a bartender in a dive bar in one of the few cities left on earth. Yue rises. Becomes an aide to one of the most powerful members of the Council — the political class trying to hold the ruined world together. One night at the bar, Ven is approached by Georg, a leader of the Brotherhood, who want a return to humanity’s primacy and the knowledge of all those things that doomed us in the first place: strip mining, eugenics, sub-prime mortgages and atomic bombs. He wants, ultimately, to kill the Kakuy and free mankind.
Georg has a spy inside the Council who passes him data deemed heretical by the priests of the Temple. And Ven, a former translator, is exactly who he needs to make sense of what he’s being given and to determine which files are real and which are forgeries.
One spoiler, no more: Ven, too, is a spy, placed in Georg’s path by the priests, and skillfully insinuating himself into the Brotherhood’s operation. This reveal comes early and at exactly the point it must — just as the reader is beginning to hate Ven for his smarm and passivity, his fascination with Georg and his willful, almost fatalistic selfishness. The sharpness with which North shifts gears comes with an almost audible snap. It feels so obvious the moment it happens, the relief of it deeply satisfying personally, and a splash of rocket fuel for the plot.
Everything after is a dance: Ven and Georg and Yue, trying to start a war, trying to prevent one, trying to protect the world, trying to free it. As a whole, Notes is a novel of cycles, of transitions. It is about the terrible cost of disposability, the burden of secrets, the power of faith and recycling. But more than that, it is a top-tier spy story, a very physical war story, a mature love story, unromantic in the way that it doesn’t lie or add glitter to anything. It begins as an idyllic homage to A Canticle For Leibowitz, becomes a Cold War mole-hunting LeCarre pastiche and ends in an Ayn Rand-vs-Margaret Atwood philosophical cage match. Cycles within cycles, all of them brilliant, horrifying, cool.
But I swear, the thing that hooked me so deep was the simple presence of it all. In Notes North has created a world that works, that lives and breathes and suffers and dies, and populated it with characters who are all flawed, all broken, and struggling to make something better. It felt seamless, like it was written in a day, maybe two, coming out whole and smooth and perfect on the very first try.
And even when North was done and Notes reached its explosive conclusion, I just wasn’t ready to leave. Her world was such a fragile, beautiful, doomed place, I felt like I should stick around just to make sure it would all be okay.
Jason Sheehan knows stuff about food, video games, books and Star Blazers. He’s the restaurant critic at Philadelphia magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales From the Radiation Age is his latest book.