Notes From the Burning Age by Claire North

From one of the most imaginative writers of her generation comes an extraordinary vision of the future…

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. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Notes From the Burning Age is available now.

Notes from the Burning Age tells a tale perfectly balanced. Humanity has been brought low by the nature it destroyed: no longer does technology rule supreme at the cost of the land. Instead, humans have found a different way to live. They have a newfound reverence for the kakuy- sky, water, and fire spirits. The kakuy are credited with cleansing the earth of humanity’s hubris through fire, drought, or flood. While I found this idea to be an interesting one, the kakuy are not ever really the main focus.

The extremely thinly veiled parallels between what happened in the book’s world and what is being done to ours were written well. The almost-philosophical musings found throughout were thought provoking and utterly fascinating. Somehow, author Claire North merged two very different tales- one of scholarly interest and debate, the other of espionage and danger- into one engrossing story.

The book opens with Ven as a child. His own childhood experience with the kakuy, which cost him his best friend, change his outlook and help shape the person he grows up to become. There are “before and after” parts in everyone’s life: the very moment something shifts and one life is swallowed up by another. The reader has the pleasure to experience this with Ven as he finds himself embroiled in a revolution he didn’t ask to be involved in, one that he is quite literally beaten into joining.

Ven is a disillusioned temple scholar, one who left the Temple after losing faith in both the Temple’s mission and its methods. He is working in a bar when he is contacted by the Brotherhood, an organization that could be seen as extremist. They pressure him into using his Temple skills to translate and verify the origins of “heretical texts”, things from before the worlds destruction that the church considers to be too dangerous for the common man. These texts range from harmless emails to instructions on bomb making. This the impetus for what becomes a fast-moving, edge-of-your-seat thriller. Ultimately, though, everything is a veneer over the true focus of the book, which is the exploration of themes such as spirituality, knowledge (and who should have it), and respect for both one’s surroundings and for other people.

The writing itself is impeccable. A book such as this could easily become too heavy, and either bore or confuse the reader. Claire North kept it moving at a good pace, while also making sure that nothing was ever rushed. The prose was beautiful in an unconventional way. In fact, I would describe the entirety of the book like that: beautiful and unconventional. Combining an interesting and relatable protagonist with a writing like this made for a book that was difficult to put down.

Notes from the Burning Age is unlike anything I have ever read and I had to mull over my thoughts before deciding what I thought of it. At the end of the day, I don’t think a book like this can fall into a “like” or “dislike” category. It is too nuanced for that. There are too many pieces that fit together to make something complex and new. Instead, I can say that it made me think. Ven was the window through which truths and wonderings are explored, in a world that-in some ways- is not too dissimilar from our own.

Self-published fantasy authors: an interview with Ryan Howse

First, why don’t you tell me a little bit about your books. 

“I’d love to. I have three books out. The first two are both in my A Concerto For the End of Days series, which takes place several centuries after a magical apocalypse so powerful it broke the world. Reality has been made much stranger, but human ingenuity has taken those setbacks, harnessed the magical currents of the world, and learned how to use it for their own gain. 

The Steel Discord is a magitech train heist that follows a young Arcanist who attempts to rescue his mentor from a military train.

The Alchemy Dirge is a noir that follows an alchemist and a black market arcana merchant. The alchemist is desperately trying to fund his newest invention, a printing press, and sells a batch of alchemy that turns volatile—and valuable. 

The third book is Red in Tooth and Claw, which was a palette cleanser for me. Instead of the intricate world-building and plotting of the others, it’s just two people from opposite sides of a war caught in the wilderness. They hate each other, and they can’t survive without the other.”

You’ve written several different series. Is there one in particular, that you’re extra fond of? 

“I think The Alchemy Dirge has all the urban intricacies down pat. Aeon feels like a living city, infused with a sense of weird that I love. It also has protagonists who are pretty far from traditional fantasy heroes. Salai, the alchemist, profoundly hates how much everyone he knows has been held back by their lower-class stature. Ilher, the merchant, wants to gain power in the city to shift the laws, not just because they’re holding him back but because he sincerely believes they’re unjust. Neither is a wizard or a warrior or an assassin. 

But no book has ever come out faster than Red in Tooth and Claw. It had been sitting in the back of my mind for nearly a decade, so once I started it, it flowed out fast.”

What first inspired you to write? What drew you to writing fantasy?

“I’ve been writing for as long as I remember. I have vivid memories of a ‘dinosaurs eat each other’ story I wrote quite young—possibly in kindergarten. As for genre, I love the potential of fantasy. Anything can happen. 

Yes, there are tropes that appear often—medieval European analogs, stabbing as an effective method of problem-solving—but none are required. You can bend the rules of reality. You can get the historical detail of a Miles Cameron if you want, or the wild abandon of China Mieville. I love the feeling one gets when the real and the unreal meet.”

When working on a book, what comes first for you–the characters or the plot?

“They feed off each other. The only reasonable answer is, ‘they come at the same time.’ If Salai didn’t create the volatile alchemy, The Alchemy Dirge wouldn’t have been a book. If I put Zarachius and Kyran into Red in Tooth and Claw, there’d be a lot less tension because they trust each other and would just banter. 

I work hard to make my protagonists make a choice early on which causes the plot. Zarachius could have realized his mentor was arrested and ran away instead of attempting a rescue. Salai could have refused to sell the alchemy that didn’t work right.”

Did you base any of your characters on yourself in any way?

“Most characters have some relation to me or I’d not write them. They need to make sense, even if I disagree with them. Zarachius and Kyran have a fun ‘give each other shit’ camaraderie reminiscent of my friends. I disagree with Ilher’s politics but I understand where he’s coming from.”

 What was the hardest character or part to write?

“Zarachius, definitely. Zarachius is obsessed with symbolism and believes fervently that reading these signs will lead to the best solution or at least give him warning of problems to come. Making that an integral part of the story, while not making him insufferable, was sometimes a tough act. His relationships with his brother, his friend, and his mentor were all key in making him human.”

I hear that you enjoy role playing games. As a fellow rpg player, I’m curious: how does storytelling differ from DM’ing?

“I love role-playing games! I’ve even created my own system, a sort of Star Trek meets Mass Effect space opera.

Challenging your players is always a wildly different beast than challenging your characters. For one, if you get the players into a difficult situation, it’s up to them to get out of it. Not so if you’re writing a book. If I get a character into a bind I need to figure out how to rescue them.

I also find running RPGs to be a lot more episodic than writing novels. It’s a bit more compartmentalized. A novel needs a sense of unity of theme and atmosphere throughout, while a good RPG campaign can have sessions feel wildly different. It’s closer to a TV show, if anything. One session about a character‘s backstory coming back to haunt them. One session as a tense horror on a derelict but not-quite-abandoned ship. One session that reminds everyone of the overarching plot.”

 Is it easier for you to write a villainous character or a hero? Which is more fun?

“Honestly, because I try to limit my POVs the books I have out currently only have protagonist POVs. Some of those protagonists are not great people—Agash from Red in Tooth and Claw is a timebomb of a man. But they are protagonists.

My villains all have reasons for what they do. I can only think of one who’s vile for the sake of it, and they’re fairly tertiary. But my antagonists have, so far, been given less page time to develop than the heroes.

The real key is to make the villains reflective of the protagonist in some way.

Unless the villain is a bear.”

What do you do to “get in the zone”?

“Lately, I’ve been using tabletopaudio.com It’s ambience for rpgs, but some of the pieces help get a sense of place. I used a lot of ‘Sea of Moving Ice’ for Red in Tooth and Claw, for instance. I can’t do silence or more bombastic music anymore.”

 Lastly, I’m always curious? What is your favorite book (and you can absolutely say your own!)

“The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco. The perfect historical mystery novel. Aw yeah.

Doestoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov has the best characters in all of literature. Frankenstein is just an absolute perfect book; watching those two characters destroy each other is fascinating.

For somewhat more modern books, I have a lot of love for Matthew Stover’s Acts of Caine, China Mieville’s Bas-Lag novels, KJ Bishop’s The Etched City, Catherynne Valente’s Deathless, and Scott Lynch’s Gentleman Bastard Sequence.”






The Book of Koli by M.R. Carey

 

Everything that lives hates us…
 
Beyond the walls of the small village of Mythen Rood lies an unrecognizable landscape. A place where overgrown forests are filled with choker trees and deadly seeds that will kill you where you stand. And if they don’t get you, one of the dangerous shunned men will.
Koli has lived in Mythen Rood his entire life. He believes the first rule of survival is that you don’t venture too far beyond the walls.
He’s wrong. (taken from Amazon)

Thank you to Angela Man and Orbit Books for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. This book is available now.

It’s taken me quite a while to write this review. I’ve been trying to sort out my thoughts, without much success. Hopefully, I won’t be too jumbled with my review.

Ultimately, The Book of Koli and I just weren’t friends. It’s not a lack of talent on the author’s part: in fact, I highly recommend his other book, The Girl With All the Gifts. Carey wrote a detailed dystopian novel, and has a very clear idea of where he wants to go with it.

I struggled a lot with the language used. There’s a reason for the less-than-exceptional grammar, but it bugged me. I kept mentally correcting the dialogue, which was quite distracting. Oddly enough, this sort of language is used in the brilliant show Firefly and I can handle that just fine. I wonder if listening to this book would have distracted me less.
The main character, Koli, was a bit annoying from time to time. My main issue was that, in following his point of view, the reader missed out on some awesome things that were only briefly touched on. The book moved slowly, picking up steam way past the halfway point. That isn’t necessarily a negative thing, just be aware that this isn’t a non-stop action book.
My main takeaway from this book is this: the author is skilled, but this story simply isn’t my bag.
Have you read this? What did you think?