Bronze Summer by Stephen Baxter
Reviewed by Finn Dempster
05 March 2012
The central conceit of this novel, the existence of a land bridge linking England to Europe, is apparently based on fact. The region of Doggerland did indeed exist, until its gradual immersion around 6000 BCE. Bronze Summer, the second novel in Stephen Baxter's Northland trilogy, depicts Europe circa 115 BCE as it might have been if that country had been preserved, saved from submersion under the North Atlantic by a vast Wall stretching from Skegness to the waters of Denmark. The construction of this sea-defying structure is the subject of this series's preceding installment, Stone Spring (2010), which takes place several thousand years earlier.
Lying between the West Coast of England and the Netherlands, the medium-sized country of Northland (whose hypothetical topography is depicted here in map as well as text form to give our imagination a nudge) is socially advanced but, uniquely, not agricultural. The fertile land is sparsely inhabited, and this favorable ratio of humans to edible animals means its population, whilst as smart as that of the next continent, can eschew the grubby business of farming that all the other nations rely on; hunting and gathering is good enough for them, thank you. Things are more complicated in the capital of Etxelur, a city primarily hollowed out of the wall itself. It is beyond the scope of this review to examine the feasibility or otherwise of all this, this reviewer having not read the previous installment; there's plenty to talk about here (although sadly not all good), with Northland forming the cornerstone to a story of much greed, a little love, and plenty of war.
The novel begins with the death of the leader of Etxelur's ruling order, apparently in a riding accident. Her daughter Milaqua, although still a teenager, is falling behind in life. She has yet to decide with which of the various "Orders" that comprise Etxelur society—ruling, trading, or civil engineering—to throw in her lot and, not for the first time in people of her age bracket, is much minded to deprioritize career concerns in favor of inebriated wassailing in the local drinking holes. Thus her bereavement is particularly ill-timed, but Milaqua is given precious little time to accept her mother's death before the Mothers themselves (Northland's deities of choice are the numerous Little Mothers of Earth, Air, and Water) land another bombshell; it was not the fall from the horse but an arrow in the chest that killed her mother. Her uncle Teel, bearer of these ill tidings and a veteran of the various inter-House rivalries and intrigues which have simmered in Etxelur for centuries, provides a consolation of sorts: an invitation to join the secretive Order of the Crow. Falling somewhere between an antiquarian equivalent of the CIA and a Department of Foreign Policy, the function of this invite-only Order is to deal with changes in the world with which the other Houses, built on ancient, inflexible tradition, cannot cope.
Meanwhile to the east, in warmer and more brutal climes, a roguish, lowborn young chancer named Qirum is biding his time, searching for his path to greatness amongst the crumbling, famine-stricken rubble of post-siege Troy and its surrounding countries. A chance encounter and subsequent partnership with the deposed and enslaved Hatti (Greek) queen Kilushepa, who despite her reduced and brutalized circumstances retains her fierce intelligence, cruel beauty, and a determination to manipulate her way back to glory, completes the introduction of the three main characters, although a great many other storylines will intertwine with theirs in the pages that follow.
This is a novel I really wanted to like, having thoroughly enjoyed the ingenuity, sweep, and sheer inventiveness of Baxter's earlier novel Transcendent (2005). And indeed, there is plenty within Bronze Summer's hefty 400-plus pages to commend. Antihero Qirum is a fascinating character; brutal and charming, victim and villain, he engenders ambiguous, contradictory feelings of revulsion, fascination, and attraction in both the reader and his fictional counterparts.
Elsewhere we find sporadic bursts of the exuberant creativity Baxter has shown himself capable of before. The social structure of Etxelur is intriguing, Baxter clearly taking seriously the opportunities afforded by Northland to imagine both the resulting race and that race's interaction with other nations of that period. In particular, the peculiarities of a society living in and around a 150-foot wall that stretches 750 windswept miles are both elegant and thought-provoking. Most of the Houses into which Etxelur society is divided are named, rather charmingly, after an anthropomorphically appropriate animal, with the creature in question representing the function of the members of that House. Thus we have the respected Swallows, whose job is to explore and map the realms around Northland; the earthier Beavers, blue collar types whose exquisitely trained senses can detect minute air shifts and unexplained dampness indicating incipient structural weaknesses (which they then rectify with an immediate application of Growstone (concrete) from the bucket they always carry on their patrols); and at the bottom, so to speak, the humble Beetles, whose somewhat thankless task is to keep the sewage systems functioning. Whimsical stuff perhaps, but fun, and even thought-provoking; this society works, has done for centuries, and it seems this success is due in part to the all-uniting challenge of maintaining life in the unnatural environment of the Wall, and of maintaining the Wall itself. Can an ever-present threat, a common threat, actually form the key to a durable, functioning society? Or can such self-absorption leave a people vulnerable to races whose principal occupation is not maintenance but war?
Alas, these good points are limited and under-developed, and as such prove insufficient to the task of rescuing a meandering, indecisive plot which sags badly in the middle, or of fully compensating us for the absence of characters we can genuinely care about. The novel's positive points are further drowned out by the frankly offensive amounts of rape, torture, and mutilation Baxter throws at us. Indeed, the relentlessness of the former, far more than is necessary to tell the story, was the most disagreeable aspect of reading this book. Yes, in a story of war set in savage antiquity, some of this was inevitable; particularly as an alternate history novel loses much of its appeal if it does not feel rooted in actual history. And in fairness, it is the sheer number of these inevitable horrors, rather than any overly graphic description, that crosses the line, as Baxter does at least some of the time restrain himself to representative details:
As always some of the more attractive women and girls had evidently been used by the soldiers; you could see it in the way they walked, the state of their clothes, the bruising and the blood. (p. 22)
Even if your tolerance threshold for that kind of thing is higher than mine, there are other problems. In terms of characters, there are enough here to sink a Greek warship; too many for us to invest in, or keep track of, and too many for Baxter to really flesh out comprehensively. One of several unfortunate consequences of this is that we remain unsure for too long whose story we are really reading. Another is that forced into ultimately selecting a limited number upon whom to lavish the most attention, some of the more interesting—certainly the most sympathetic—characters are sidelined or dropped from the story for extended periods of time; examples include renegade South American sculptress Caxa, fledgling Warrioress Mi, and Milaqua's shy, would-be suitor Voro. Of those characters selected for star treatment, only Qirum really makes us care, even if his dialogue does sometimes lean, as does that of the other characters, to the lengthy and expository:
So here we are in the presence of an exiled Hatti queen, and a Northland trader who seems hungry for a little power himself, and a bit of weapon-quality iron. How does it all fit together, do you think? (p. 106)
Whether this is down to poor choosing on Baxter's part, or whether he is better at sketching these kinds of characters than painting a full color portrait of them is, to be fair, a question that might yet be answered in the third book; nonetheless I watched in dismay as the initially intriguing Kilushepa, a possible Cleopatra to Qirum's dark Anthony, became a predictable manipulator whose cruelty was stagey rather than frightening. Early on, whilst still essentially powerless, her poise and ambition arrest our attention, as during one of her most memorable passages shortly after we meet her:
Everything this ship was made of was once alive, wasn’t it? The wood, the wax, the moss, the leather—all these bits of trees and plants and animals, sliced up and stitched together. The living stuff of the land moulded to defy the sea. It's wonderful when you think about it. As if the ship is itself alive, a creature bounding across the waves. (p. 68)
Here, she is an interesting enigma, the appreciation for life evinced in these lines forming a compelling contrast to the unabashed ruthlessness she is beginning to show. But by the time of the quote below, delivered much later to a largely undeserving pair of fatally poisoned characters from the supporting cast, it is of little surprise; she has long since regressed to a one-dimensional cliché of cruelty:
Kilushepa sneered. "How noble you both are. I hope it comforts you when the Trojans pursue your shades into the underworld." (p. 402)
There are similar problems with Milaqua. Having established a strong premise which promises intrigue, adventure, surely some character development in the form of a coming of age tale, Baxter bafflingly defuses much of her story whilst scarcely a third of the way into the novel, and although Milaqua still has some very significant roles to play in what follows, these are limited in relation to the time we spend with her. She remains throughout something of a cipher, simply too unformed a character to feel much about one way or another. The suggestion made at the end of the novel, that she is somehow pathologically detached and amoral, that she has "a heart like an empty cup" (p. 408), feel like belated attempts to pass off this lack of personality as something deliberate, Baxter claiming spilled paint as Pollock, and are reminiscent of earlier attempts in the too-lengthy passages of dialogue to convince us that what we are reading is significant:
And yet what he decides now will shape all of history to come. What an extraordinary scene to witness. (p. 224)
It is always possible that this is a novel best read in the light cast by its preceding volume (which I feel bound by fairness to reiterate I have not read), or that its shortcomings will be made up for in the third novel. It is likewise possible that those with a greater knowledge of the “real” history of this era than yours truly would be in a better position to appreciate it. But despite these possibilities, and despite the fact that Bronze Summer was not without merit, I was rather relieved to put this book down and consequently would find it hard to recommend.