Fiction Reviews

Stone Spring – Northland: Book One

(2010) Stephen Baxter, Gollancz, £12.99, trdpbk, 464pp, ISBN 978-0-575-08919-9


Stephen Baxter has set this new series mostly in Doggerland – the plain which occupied what is now the North Sea – when sea levels worldwide were lower during the ice age (glacial). As the Afterword explains, at the end of the ice age in 8000 BC the north coast of that plain stretched from England to Denmark, and there was a southern estuary the size of the Bristol Channel. On this plain there were twenty-four major lakes and wetlands, linked by 1,000 miles (1,600 km) of rivers. Much of this we know as the remains of settlements and remnants of a wide range of fauna have been found under the present North Sea (and was subject of a Time Team television archaeology special in April 2007). We also know that in 6200 BC, Britain was swept by tsunami from a landslide off the Norwegian Storegga shelf, and the events of this novel are triggered by a supposed similar event – ‘The Year of the Great Sea’, as its survivors name it.

The main action takes place on Extelur, a name coined from Basque, whose inhabitants have already lost a ritual site, the House of the Mother, in the form of a giant cup-and-ring marking (found at many neolithic sites in Britain). Their best flint pits have also been covered by the rising sea, and their mesolithic crescent-shaped middens of shells, used as burial places for the dead, provide the inspiration for a post-tsunami project to build dykes and protect the land from further sea incursions.

The novel begins with the leader of Extelur’s people missing on a whale hunt, and his daughter is taking charge. It coincides with a seven-year event, the arrival of a trading delegation of Pretani: that name derived from an old Gaelic word which was in use when the Romans came, and may be the origin of ‘Britain’. Pretani society is male-dominated, and the obvious complication arise. The missing leader has gone all the way to North America, and he returns with a new wife and her child, the last of a tribe of the Clovis people (all the pre-history behind this is explained in the Afterword, but is sometimes a little hard to follow in the text). Meanwhile, as far away as Jericho, an unwanted son is enslaved to a passing trader, who heads north and west before dying, leaving the boy to continue in that direction because he has no alternative. His skills were in making and working bricks, with which the first walls of Jericho have been built to protect against floods and mudflows – again a possibility, with references in the Afterword. By the time of the tsunami these characters have met, and the necessary elements are in place for the great project, to hold back the sea from Extelur, ultimately from the whole of Doggerland. The new social organisation which that requires is to prove crucial when the Pretani and their slaves invade.

I have kept from giving the names of the characters here, to avoid being drawn into the web of relationships which drives the action. Stephen Baxter does a masterful job of making great events emerge out of individual loves, hates and rivalries – it is much like the history of (say) the US space programme, of which he has already given us an alternative version in Voyage. The novel text leaves us uncertain whether the dykes will save Doggerland, so perhaps the Afterword and the jacket blurb spoil some of the suspense for Book Two.

Duncan Lunan

See also reviews of Bronze Summer – Northland: Book Two and Iron Winter – Northland: Book Three .

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