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.
Thank you to NetGalley and Orbit for the free eARC in exchange for an honest review.
I have mixed feelings about this book… it’s my first experience of Claire North’s writing after having her books on my TBR for a while, and she and her talent certainly do not disappoint. Her prose is exquisite and hit straight at the heart many a time throughout the novel, and the way she constructs her narrative is so clever that I’m sure I’ve missed a lot of the intricate details. But it is certainly not a happy read, nor a comforting one, and it was slow going for me because of the repetitive nature of the plot and the depressingly realistic descriptions of the way humanity exploited the earth both in the Burning Age (aka our current times) and in Ven’s times much later in the future. The narration also continuously switches between past tense and present tense, which at times I didn’t notice but it did sometimes distract me. Having said that, though, my feelings lean much more to the positive, and I’m definitely glad I read this book.
In the Burning Age, humanity valued excess – wealth, land, fame, food – and pursued it to the detriment of other people and the earth itself. When things became too much, and the world had caught fire due to climate disasters and nuclear weapons alike, the great beings called the kakuy rose up and began to destroy the human race and all they built. The kakuy are spirits of nature, and they hold no feelings towards people, they simply protect their environment, and once the worst of human society had been wiped out, they returned to their slumber. Those that survived the burning and the kakuy began life again, and the Temples arose to remind people to live lives that respect nature, and spent their time translating documents from the Burning Age and hiding away any that could lead to something so drastic and destructive again.
‘Let not your hands fell the tree but that another is planted.
Let not your ears hear the rain and think it falls for you.
Let not your tongue speak of conquering the mountain, for it will not shiver when winter comes.’
The main character is Ven, and he lives in a time hundreds of years after the Burning Age, in a small town that still venerates the kakuy, but when so many are doubting their continued existence, claiming no one has seen one in a hundred years. Ven, however, saw one as a child, when the forest around his home was burning, and he often recalls it throughout the narrative. After an opening chapter in which Ven is a child, we pick up with him later in his life, and he is living in a city, working as a bartender under a different name. When a man named Georg Mestri finds him and blackmails him, he begins to translate stolen Temple documents for him and his Brotherhood, who believe that man should not cower before the kakuy any longer.
‘Here’s the history of the world for you.
Here’s what the burning left behind.
You want gods, and all you get are people.’
From there ensues a sequence like dominoes slowly falling, with Ven caught between two sides, watching as the world tries to return to the way things were before the Burning Age, building war machines and mining the earth, and the few who oppose it cannot stand against these weapons from a forgotten age. It is a beautifully written tale, and it is certainly not one of heroes and grand resolutions, but people with beliefs, or a lack of beliefs, and the way those shape the world. Ven is an endearing and fascinating point of view character, and the world he finds himself in is full of tension, and I loved his arc. This is a book that will appeal to those SFF readers who like post apocalyptic settings, as well as to fans of ‘literary’ fiction who will appreciate the prose and the character-work. I will definitely be reading more by Claire North, but might read something that will make me forget about the incoming climate disaster for a while!
Published: 22nd July 2021 by Orbit Books
Genre: Sci-Fi, Fiction
Narration style: first person, multiple tenses
Format read: eARC and hardback
Content Warnings: torture, violence, blood, confinement