Notes From The Burning Age by Claire North

July 22, 2021

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.

The release of a new Claire North novel is always cause for much celebration here at The Eloquent Page. Over the last few years, she has cemented herself as one of my favourite authors. 84K, The Gameshouse and The Pursuit of William Abbey are all exceptional. Recently, I was given the opportunity to read her latest, Notes from the Burning Age. Unsurprisingly I found I was powerless to resist.

In a post-apocalyptic vision of Europe, two factions vie to control the direction of our future. A young man is drawn into the complex web of political intrigues that threaten the destruction of everything.

Ven is an introspective, thoughtful soul. A childhood tragedy has left such a profound mark it makes him question everything about the way humans live and the effect that has on the environment. As an archivist he translates forbidden, heretical texts for the authorities. Once they understand the nature of the information learned, the powers-that-be decide if the knowledge should be banned or not.

Ven’s chosen profession brings him into contact with a group of radicals who want to use his skills to unlock the keys to the past. Their argument, humanity needs to reclaim dominion over the earth. Ven accepts their offer and from that moment on his life begins to spiral out of control. Working for political extremists is a fraught existence with the constant possibility of discovery and worse. Ven needs to make split-second decisions that have the potential to shape nations. There is a real sense of immediacy to his character. He has little choice but to live forever in the moment. Ven is always accepting of any situation he finds himself in, but over time I started to see a fatalistic streak develop. When the house of cards you find yourself in can collapse at any time, I guess you have to appreciate that things can and will sometimes go wrong. With such a constantly shifting existence there is little that anchors Ven to his past. The only link he has with where he comes from is a childhood friend called Yue. The dynamic between the two is fascinating. Yue works in the political arena so their paths cross from time to time. The successes and failures Ven experiences re-shape the relationship with Yue each time they meet.

The Spanish philosopher George Santayana is credited with saying “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”. The opposing forces that Ven finds himself stuck between are arguing both sides of this point. The Brotherhood are revolutionaries. They want assert power over all things by revisiting the forbidden knowledge of the Burning Age. It doesn’t matter that humanity has nearly destroyed itself once already. The Brotherhood believe they can do a better job than their forefathers. Their superiority is paramount, they remain convinced they won’t make the same mistakes. As a counterpoint to that, The Temple want to live in harmony with the world. The ways of the past have been proven to be wrong and should be consigned to history. I have to admit I found myself leaning towards the Temple’s point of view.

One of the things I always enjoy about Claire North’s writing is her ability to defy my expectations. Every time I think I’ve got one of her work figured out, she responds with a very definite “oh you think so, do you?”. Notes From the Burning Age begins simply enough, but don’t be fooled, this is a story you need to pay attention to. The narrative quickly morphs into something more complex, a taut cold war thriller that tonally lies somewhere between Inception, 1984 and Tenet. What develops is a tense game of cat and mouse that manages to be utterly enthralling. The impressive thing is that the transition is seamless. It is so deftly executed I’m a little in awe.

As ever North’s thoughtful wordsmithery leaves me with plenty to mull over. The text explores a host of topics from the impact we have on the environment to how information shapes society right through to the nature of faith. I always find so many layers to this author’s work it ensures I’ll revisit her books again and again.

As an aside, there are a handful of references for the eagle-eyed amongst you detailing the ultimate fate of our very own silly little island. Based on where we are right now, I think we got exactly what we deserved.

For reasons far too long-winded and waffly to detail here, The End of The Day will forever be my favourite Claire North novel, but Notes from the Burning Age is a very close second. It’s an expertly crafted tale, part spy thriller, part introspective character study. My advice would be to seek it out immediately and relish every word.

Notes from the Burning Age is published by Orbit and is available now. Highly recommended.

My musical recommendation to accompany Notes from the Burning Age is the soundtrack to the 2011 adaptation of Tinker, Tailor, Solider, Spy by Alberto Iglesias. What with all the spies, double-crosses and suspicion round every corner it felt suitably appropriate.



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