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WesternSFA
Bronze Summer
by Stephen Baxter
ROC Books, 2012, $26.95, 454pp
Release Date: November 6, 2012
Bronze Summer is part two of The Northland Trilogy, following Stone Spring. If you are feeling adventurous you can jump right in, because 1) Baxter is that good a writer, and 2) the story is exciting, coherent, and enthralling on its own.

The best science fiction writers are almost invariably scientists. I cannot think of a single exception, if you define scientist as “one concerned with knowing.” In Baxter’s case, the areas of official knowing include mathematics and engineering – he attended Cambridge – while anthropology and history have obviously been additional subjects of interest. I get the sense he was one who wondered, not just “How did our ancestors build this?” but “Why did they build it this way?” The four classical Greek causes of any thing are the material, the efficient, the formal, and the final: what materials are employed in the making, the makers or shapers, the idea or pattern or style that gets expressed, and the purpose or utility for which the thing is made. In this trilogy, all four causes are described, sometimes so vividly that, as a reader, you are there. When the setting is a barracks in Troy, with filth and squalor and unwashed bodies, this is not so pleasant; but there are other places: alongside the wall that holds back the waters of the north sea, into which the bodies of the dead are interred so that even in death they protect their community; the caravans that traverse the regions; the sea journey to the Land of the Jaguar.

And the characters are so intriguing!

Milaqa has the dilemma of a Great Woman’s daughter in a matriarchal society of not knowing what to do with herself. Accustomed to the status of being the daughter of an Annid of Annids, she feels scornful of most of the options that present themselves for her choosing. Almost sixteen, she is required by custom to declare her choice of House; should she, daughter of Kuma, be a mere digger of irrigation trenches as a Beetle or tender of the wall with the Beavers? And it is not so much that she is haughty as that she lacks social skills, rather as if she had a historic version of Asperger’s syndrome.

Milaqa’s sly, wise uncle Teel, who long ago traded the ability to father children to join the ranks of the Annids, not for personal aggrandizement but for the getting of wisdom, perceives more in the death of their leader than meets the eye, and tries to warn Milaqa. This is an important subplot, for it exemplifies a shift from a social-minded matriarchy to ambition-driven patriarchal rule by one who equates power with opportunism instead of with responsibility, one who refuses to make the sacrifice Teel made as he sets himself up to be a shadow-king.

Then there is Qirum, who has had a rough life in Troy , and his ally – or perhaps frenemy is more accurate – Praxo. Qirum’s sordid life changes radically when he purchases off a slave line, not one of the young girls he first eyes, but the ‘old’ woman who speaks boldly and names herself Kilushepa, deposed Queen of Hattusa. Under her astonishing tutelage, Qirum becomes all he dreamed of being.

Without doubt, Kilushepa is my favorite character. She has no illusions to lose; she is sapient, with a mind that ranges back through history, forward along potential timelines, and sideways into the hearts and minds of those around her with equal precision. And the surprise ending is all her doing. Best of all, as the author explains in his Notes at the end, her action is historically valid. I’d still rather be Cordelia Naismith Vorkosigan than Tawananna Kilushepa, but I’d sure like to have her in my corner.

Among the other storylines is the voyage to the Land of the Jaguar to bring to the Northland a sculptor to honor the late Annid of Annids, the travels of merchant clans, and the shifting alliances of city states. Trade routes, materials exchanged, and the control of these things is of central concern for any man who would be king.

Then, in the midst of all these unfolding human dramas, the eruption of a fire mountain changes absolutely everything.

This is no Lucifer’s Hammer or Ill Wind scenario of surviving sudden devastation; no, Baxter is dealing with subtleties of how slowly darkening skies affect climate, water temperature, and growing seasons, and how changes in these things force profound changes in human interactions.

This is a tremendous book, and a great series. It may not set you laughing, but it will definitely spark your neurons. ~~ Chris R. Paige

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