Book Review: Notes from the Burning Age, by Claire North

This week, I’m finally reviewing the latest novel from the prolific Claire North, Notes from the Burning Age. I managed to get a review out before she published another book, hooray! Read on for my thoughts on this post-climate-change-reckoning set tale.

This review contains an affiliate link to Bookshop.org, which will earn me a commission if used, as well as helping to support independent bookshops.

At an unspecified time in our future, humanity have had to relearn how to live in harmony with the Earth. After centuries of polluting the planet, we were put firmly in our place by the coming of the kakuy; deadly guardians of the natural world, their destructive arrival set our species back years, but seems to have saved the planet. Now the future of our world could hang in the balance again, as Ven – a young priest – finds himself with the power to set the course for our species.

Ven’s world is one of shrines, temples, taverns and all those other fantasy staples, but this isn’t another medieval-set, Tolkien tinged world; rather, this is a simpler time, the result of humanity rising from the ashes with lessons learned and consciously choosing not to consume the natural world in the name of progress. Idyllic descriptions of the natural world abound, the opening in particular charmingly bucolic. 

Of course, this situation isn’t ideal for everyone. The Brotherhood are keen to restore humankind as the masters of Earth, setting their sights on Ven as the man for the job – with his background in translating the heretical texts of the so-called Burning Age, he’s just what they’re looking for to kickstart a new industrial revolution. Perhaps unsurprisingly for anyone who has read North’s work before, this affords her the opportunity to create a character in Ven who we’re not quite sure we can trust. Is he a hero? An antihero? Or perhaps even a villain? 

This theme of trust is a prevalent one throughout Notes from the Burning Age, with webs of intrigue and shadowy alliances playing a major part as things progress. At the centre of all of these webs is Brotherhood member Georg, the man who recruited Ven, one of those villains you just love to hate. Scenes between him and Ven are like a constant game of cat and mouse where you’re never sure who’s the cat and who’s the mouse – or whether they’re maybe both cats – and serve as the highlights of the novel. Their conversations are entertaining and tension-filled, while the shifting relationship between the two of them is nuanced and feels completely natural.

So good is the dynamic between Ven and Georg, in fact, that the other characters and Ven’s relationships with them seem almost overshadowed by it. Georg is hardly larger than life – rather he’s an utterly believable and motivated advocate for change – but the meticulously constructed relationship between him and Ven is so juicy and satisfying that anything else seems a little stale and slow by comparison. A mole subplot is mildly diverting, but it’s never really in any doubt as to who the mole is, with the resolution unfortunately not being particularly satisfying. The multitude of other characters are somewhat thin for the most part too, which does on occasion make it tricky to remember exactly who’s who, as well as making it difficult to be particularly invested in them.

Thankfully, there are plenty of exciting near misses and desperate pursuits, as things become more like a spy thriller than anything else, which helps to prop things up until a memorable finale. There’s plenty to enjoy here, with North’s prose as good as ever, but the slow pace and shifting of the spotlight away from what’s indisputably the highlight might prove frustrating for some.

Notes from the Burning Age is out now, published by Orbit. You can order a copy at this affiliate link.

Currently reading: Dogs of War, Adrian Tchaikovsky

Currently listening: Coherence, Be’lakor

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Notes from the Burning Age, by Claire North

    1. This one is pretty good, but I would recommend The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August over it (and in fact over quite a few other books, it’s excellent!). The Pursuit of William Abbey is really good too.

      Liked by 1 person

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