Notes from the Burning Age by Claire North is both an exciting story of spies and traitors in a post-apocalyptic Europe and a powerful study of trauma and belief.
It is, above all, the story of Ven Marzouki, who survived a traumatic childhood when he witnessed the great burning of the old civilization and the loss of a friend, Vae, for which he blames himself. Though damaged and emotionally distanced from all belief, he came to accept the Temple faith that emerged after vast destruction of the Burning Age. The great burning of the world took down the civilization that saw humans as masters of the world, free to exploit its wealth with brilliant but dangerous technologies.
In its place there evolved an uneasy alliance of broken countries now organized as Provinces under a Council that operates under the Temple faith. Its main tenet is to prevent the return of the old belief in human dominance and the technologies that supported it.
Twenty years after his childhood disaster, Ven is a lay investigator for the Temple, searching out the old archives, stored in electronic drives that are carefully preserved and that contain all the secrets of the age of exploitation. Then he turns himself into a spy to expose the inner workings of a rival faith, known as the Brotherhood, that tries to revive the old beliefs that humans could indeed conquer the earth.
The plot follows Ven’s exploits as a spy for the Council and a race between him and his unknown counterpart, spying within the Council for the Brotherhood, as to which will be revealed first. It’s an exciting story full of sharply drawn characters and richly imagined detail of a damaged world.
The clash of belief systems is absolute. The Temple preaches humility in the face of nature, the need to forswear the old technologies that can disrupt the earth, and the need to live in a humble way that will not cause the spirits of nature (the kakuy) to destroy human civilization again as they did in the Burning Age. The surviving peoples of Europe for the most part set aside their differences amid the the ruins of their countries and submitted to the rule of a Temple-inspired Council.
But emerging now is the Brotherhood, based in the old belief system that technologies to control the world must be revived and with them the values of personal gain, hierarchies of power and wealth and “freedom” to exploit the riches of nature. The Brotherhood is taking over one of the Provinces of the Council and threatens war to overthrow the Temple structure completely.
Notes from the Burning Age is never overly philosophical or polemical work. The detail of belief is made real through the personal experiences of its two main characters, Ven and the mastermind of the Brotherhood, Georg Mestri. Mestri may be the brutal embodiment of the rising power of the Brotherhood, but he is a carefully drawn character who reveals his own history of how he came to despise the Temple beliefs and worked his way into a behind-the-scenes leadership position.
Ven survives childhood trauma with permanent scars and an emotional reserve that leaves him feeling always like an observer of life rather then a participant in his life. Yet at crucial times, the horror of early trauma haunts him and requires all his energy to keep any trace of his guilt and terror from showing on the surface.
“When I first trained to be a spy, I would stand in front of the mirror and remember how it felt when the forest burned and the river roared, reach out for Vae and miss her flailing hand, don’t let go, don’t let go, and tell myself, It’s your fault. In time, I could do this, and meet my own eyes as the fire raged in the cauldron of my mind, and see no flush of colour nor any change in my breath, but was merely the mountain against which the wind must break.”Notes from the Burning Age, Kindle edition, chapter 19, location 4057
Throughout this compelling story, we see Ven over and over again forcing down his feelings to maintain his cover. At the same time, he expresses deep skepticism about Temple beliefs even as he keeps coming back to them, following the forms of worship, defending them against the encroaching ideas of the Brotherhood, expecting the return of the kakuy as humans once again try to tear the earth apart for its riches.
His is a crisis of faith which is never neatly resolved. He survives by keeping his focus on the immediate tasks of survival and numbing himself to physical and emotional pain. His whole emotional life seems to have been hollowed out by his failure to really deal with the impact of early trauma. The spy story, which becomes intense and exciting, is always intertwined with the depth of Ven’s inner struggle. Neither lets up until a spectacular conclusion that works on the level of struggle between Temple and Brotherhood, Ven and Georg and within Ven himself.
North’s descriptions of even minor characters make them stand out and become integral to the progress of the story.
“Green-grey eyes looked down upon the city as if waiting at any moment for a fire to start. When her face was neutral, it was an almost formless thing, with thin pale lips and small flat nose seeming to blend into each other. On those occasions when she frowned — or, more rarely, smiled — contours of fibre and tendon emerged from cheek and chin, as if she existed in only two states: animated, or corpse-like, with no middle ground between them.Notes from the Burning Age, Kindle edition, chapter 16, location 3675
And her evocation of each setting skillfully intertwines the details of nature with the human background that helps explain the current world of the story.
“Beneath the earth, roots tangled like lovers, one atop another, feeding the new geen, and as the ferms uncoiled their fresh leaves and the ants nibbled at the fallen black trunks of yesteryear, the forest grew. Life had returned faster than anyone had expected. Not the old life; not the crows or the great rumbling bears, but the smaller, faster life that thrived in bracken and fern, that fed on the insects when thrived in sooty soil and loved to lick at dribbling nectar from freshly rising sap.”Notes from the Burning Age, Kindle edition, chapter 3, location 959
Notes from the Burning Age is at once an exciting story and a book of ideas that repays close reading. It made a much deeper impression on me than any other book by Claire North. Don’t miss it.