(2011) Gollancz, trdpbk, £14.99, 424pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08923-5
Following Book One: Stone Spring, Stephen Baxter continues the Northland series, set on the plain of what in our world is the North Sea. After about 5000 years, the wall, begun to protect settlements there against tsunamis, has grown into a near-permanent barrier, tended with concrete called 'growstone' by the inhabitants of Extelur, a peninsula on the north edge of the land bridge to 'Albia', still forested throughout.
What I may have missed (though I have looked hard for it) is the reason why Northland has not been invaded from the sea on the southwest. Presumably the Thames is still a tributary of the Rhine, which flows into the English Channel - here called 'The Cut', and beginning around where Dover is now. The description of the southwestern shoreline does not include any natural or man-made barriers to stop the sea advancing there into the plain, now submerged, which we call 'Doggerland'; though there is a mention (p.290) of managing the rivers on that shore “to keep them from tearing at the land”. If the Frontispiece map is accurate, the sea level is generally lower than in our world: Ireland is larger, and the Hebrides, Orkney and Shetland are single land masses joined to Albia. Perhaps, too, the rebound of Britain as the glaciers retreated was less of a seesaw than it has been in our world. I am sure Stephen Baxter has an answer to my question, but I cannot find it here, only guess at it.
History, too, has taken a different course. In Stone Spring the Northlanders had already reached Iceland c.6000 BC (and why not?), and here they have regular transatlantic crossings and trade with the Olmecs of Central America. (Thinking of Helliconia and the Eden trilogy, I wondered why the dedication is to Brian Aldiss and not Harry Harrison.) Since the book jacket speaks of “drought-plagued lands around the Mediterranean”, the 'B.C.' date on the map makes me wonder how different this history is going to get; and when the italicised preface warns of a coming volcanic eruption, I had a moment of confusion, wondering if we were to get a new version of Atlantis. But no, the volcanic threat is “on an island in the Western Ocean”, and the B.C. date is 1151, so the explosion of Thera has presumably come and gone long before this book is set.
What does happen is an explosive eruption of Hekla in 1159, bringing climatic downturn to Britain and the Mediterranean region just as it did in our world. But the countries of the eastern Mediterranean are already importing food from Northland, particularly potatoes, the magic food from the Americas. With Troy in ruins and the Hittite empire fragmented by wars, dispossessed warlords set their sights on Northland as a possible base from which to rebuild their power and reconquer the middle east. Despite their use of bronze, the Northlanders have retained a society which is largely Mesolithic and Neolithic, so the clash of cultures which follows is eerily like the one which Neil Oliver envisages in A History of Ancient Britain (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2011), though set a thousand years later and triggered by the arrival of iron.
We follow the confrontation primarily through three characters: Milaqa, a misfit in Northland, an unwilling ambassador to the Middle East, and dangerously attracted to Qirum, a landless warlord from Troy, despite his relationship with Kilushepa, an ousted Hittite queen. But it’s lesser characters who’ve stayed with me: Mi, the archer girl who can outshoot the best of men; Caxa, the Olmec sculptress, saved by the volcano from an early death on her return to the Land of the Jaguar, which never happens. There are many stories within this novel, all worth following as they add up into the epic.
See also our autumnal 2014 science and SF interface section story Mesolithic people abandon North Sea Doggerland 'Atlantis' due to tsunami.
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