It’s been days since I finished Claire North’s last book, Notes of the Burning Age, and I’m still mad at it. Not because North did something wrong, but just because there isn’t any more.
And I don’t mean a few more pages, a few more scenes. I want lots. I want volumes. I want to go back to my Kindle, open it and see that, as if by magic, its 450 pages have grown to a thousand. I’ve spent a handful of late nights and early mornings in the crumbling, rescued and re-ruined world that North has made of our own not so distant future. They were good days. There was a strange sense of peace in them – to slip into a fantasy nightmare so skillfully sketched out it sounded like the truth. And when it was done, I just didn’t want to leave.
Which is weird, of course. Who doesn’t want to let go of a nightmare? But Remarks is convincing because it is beautiful. Because it is a mess, skillfully rendered, with a recognizable past (ours) and a believable present to which mainly three characters testify who not only live it, but actively shape it.
North (the pen name of the spaceships and dystopias of the creepy prolific Catherine Webb) opens in the midst of a disaster – three children on an Edenic summer afternoon, playing among sacred trees , carefully maintained shrines, solar panels and compressor batteries from a world that has delicately scratched its way from the brink.
The burning age of the title? It’s us. It’s today. The period in human history when we decided that the earth and everything in it was a resource that could be exploited without consequence, mastered by men, machines and nations increasingly insular and desperate to as these resources began to run out.
At some point, the earth rebels. The Kakuy – the spirits of everything from a forest or an entire ocean to a single tree – arise and annihilate humanity. They are not gods, but a sort of secular defense mechanism: heedless of good or evil, of faith or agnosticism, deaf to supplications, blind to sacrifice. These are huge monsters that embody their element, existing only to remove the infection of human greed from the systems of the world.
Ah, and also? They might not in fact to exist.
You see, the information from Burning Age is patchy at best. It exists in the ruins of the past – in landfills and dumps, in the hard drives and server farms that survived fires, floods and devastation, in some precious Burning Age data vaults. The Kakuy are the croquemitaines of the past, the warning given by a quasi-priestly order which now collects and preserves the information of the fiery age, deciding what knowledge will benefit mankind and what is forbidden, how to maintain a balance between the man and nature.
In the pure and ancient Eden of North, there is a fire. An accident that consumes the forest surrounding a village. The three children are running. One of them dies. The other two – Ven and Yue – survive. In full conflagration, one of them (Ven) sees the Kakuy of the forest. He watches him die. The other (Yue) only sees fire.
Ven becomes a priest, Yue a politician. Ven learns dead languages and becomes a Burning Age document and data translator, is kicked out of the priesthood for stealing heretical information and selling it, ends up in disgrace, working as a bartender in a dive bar in one of the rare cities that remain on earth. Yue gets up. Becomes the assistant to one of the most powerful members of the Council – the political class trying to hold the world in ruins together. One night at the bar, Ven is approached by Georg, a Brotherhood leader, who wants a return to the primacy of humanity and knowledge of all those things that doomed us in the first place: surface mining. , eugenics, subprime mortgages and atomic bombs. He wants, ultimately, to kill the Kakuy and liberate humanity.
Georg has a spy on the Council who passes on data deemed heretical by the priests of the Temple. And Ven, a former translator, is exactly the person he needs to make sense of what he’s given and to figure out which files are real and which are fake.
One spoiler, no more: Ven, too, is a spy, placed in Georg’s path by the priests, and skillfully infiltrating the Brotherhood operation. This revelation comes early and exactly when it should – just as the reader begins to hate Ven for his smarmy 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 is so obvious By the time that happens, the relief from it is deeply personally satisfying and a touch of rocket fuel for the plot.
Everything after is a dance: Ven, Georg and Yue, trying to start a war, trying to prevent one, trying to protect the world, trying to free it. In general, Remarks is a novel of cycles, of transitions. It is the terrible cost of disposal, the burden of secrets, the power of faith and recycling. But more than that, it’s a top-notch spy story, a very physical war story, a mature love story, unromantic in that it doesn’t lie and doesn’t add glitter to anything. It begins as an idyllic tribute to A hymn for Leibowitz, becomes a LeCarre Cold War mole-hunting pastiche and ends with a philosophical Ayn Rand-vs-Margaret Atwood cage match. Cycles in cycles, all shiny, horrible, cool.
But I swear the thing that got me so deep was the simple presence of all that. In Remarks North has created a world that works, that lives, breathes, suffers and dies, and populated it with characters all faulty, all broken and struggling to make something better. It was seamless, as if it had been written in a day, maybe two, coming out whole and smooth and perfect the first time.
And even when North is done and Remarks reached its explosive conclusion, I just wasn’t ready to go. Her world was such a fragile, beautiful and doomed place, I felt like I had to stick around just to make sure everything was going to be okay.
Jason Sheehan knows his stuff about food, video games, books and Star blazers. He is a restaurant critic at Philadelphia cream magazine, but when no one is looking, he spends his time writing books about giant robots and ray guns. Tales of the Radiation Age is his latest book.