Blog Tour Book Review: NOTES FROM THE BURNING AGE by Claire North

I received a review copy as part of the blog tour in exchange for an honest review. It has not affected my opinions.

Title in black on cream with pink drawn flowers and
Genre: literary dystopia
Age Range: Adult
Star Rating: 3 stars
Series: standalone

Synopsis:

Book cover for NOTES FROM THE BURNING AGE: title in black on cream surrounded by pink hand-drawn flowers and flames

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.

Synopsis taken from Goodreads. Add to your shelves here.


Review:

NOTES FROM THE BURNING AGE is one of those books where the story and its premise, not to mention the world, are very interesting, but the narrative style was just not for me.

The world is clearly ours but after many environmental disasters caused by greed and recklessness (the burning age.) As such, the place names are mutilations of present-day names, the blurred alterations of fuzzy recollections passed down too many times. Isdanbul, Vien, Bukarest.

Before – or during – or because – of the disasters, these “nature spirit” like things (the kakuy) arrived. They might have caused some of the disasters as punishment, or tried to save those who remained from the disasters the humans had created. There was a real ambiguity to them, partly a lack of knowledge and partly deliberate on the part of the priests. There are a few wry moments where Ven mentions that it’s in the priests’ best interests to keep them vague, but mostly it was up to the reader to work them out. I found them an intriguing metaphor for human’s relationship with nature – monster, mother, other, conquerable, untameable all in one.

The kakuy are also why I’d say this is fantasy-leaning dystopia, rather than the sci-fi leaning dystopia (which feels more common in the small pool of adult dystopia I am aware of.)

Fragments of our civilisation live in on “relics” with the words “made in China” stamped into plastic, or the decayed, corrupted text Ven translates for others to determine if they’re heresy (aka, destructive) or fine. It was such an interesting set up, and getting into the mindset of someone who had religious training but whose job was not theological determination but the more mundane translation work was really interesting. The man who was just another cog, who handled all this important information but made no choices.

This matched his role in the book. He was an observer more than a participant, surviving because that’s what you did. He was a prisoner or a seeming collaborator most of the time, doing as he was told. After the tense, frenetic start where he was a double agent under constant threat from being caught, he then spends a big chunk of the middle as a prisoner of war, not really biding his time to escape (as he fully expects to die) but just getting on with it, because what else is there to do? He’s too calm and practical to let himself give in to despair.

It somehow manages to work in the book. Usually that sort of character would really drag a book down, killing the tension and pacing as they have no goals so there’s nothing pushing the book onwards. However, through his confinement time, we see the world being destroyed (again) second hand. For me, that really spoke to the current predicament, too many people sitting back, either ignoring the problem or deciding it was worth it. There was a terrifyingly familiar horror in it, seeing it all be wilfully burnt for “progress” without the ability to change it because the people doing it were too powerful.

NOTES FROM THE BURNING AGE is what I would call literary fiction. Not borderline or literary leaning, but straight up literary fiction. So much of the emphasis is put on the story telling style, rather than the story itself, and the style could make it quite hard to read at times.

I probably should have guessed it was literary fiction from the cover. I mean, that cover doesn’t scream SFF, does it? It’s gorgeous, and the reason this book caught my eye in the first place, but it’s a literary fiction cover in the colours and composition.

This is not the sort of literary fiction that feels smugly self-congratulatory about the prose (the “isn’t the style so clever?” type.) If it was, I probably would have DNF’d. No, this is the sort of literary fiction where prose isn’t particularly linear – which my very linear brain struggles to follow.

The main character is Ven, and the story is nominally told first person from his perspective. There are flashbacks – sometimes separate scenes, sometimes in scene. You can have two chronologically consequtive scenes back to back in different tenses. A scene might start with Ven’s action, and then switch to a third person omniscient about someone else in the room or describing the city from a more detached perspective. Perhaps, (like the first chapter) the writing will be focused in third person on someone else and then switch halfway through to Ven.

It felt quite scattered, leaping all over the place. It was definitely a deliberate, stylistic choice, picked to match the “the world is falling to pieces and Ven is bobbing through it, trying to survive, trying to work out what his place is and his beliefs” tone of the book. And some people will love it for that. But it’s not a style that works with my brain. I need things nice and focused and ordered and signposted if the time frame is switching.

So, ultimately, it’s a good book, but it’s just not one for me and the type of reader I am.


Read my reviews of other books by Claire North:

Songs of Penelope:

Blog tour graphic: names of participating bloggers in black on pink next to image of book
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