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Bronze Summer
by Stephen Baxter
Roc, $26.95, 447pp
Release Date: November 6, 2012
This is the second of the Northland Trilogy, an alternative history series. I know these sorts of books always get categorized as SF but sometimes I wonder if it needs its own genre. I don’t mind the ones that extrapolate a different future based on a pivotal moment in history so that Nazis end up conquering the world. But this series and the significant Jean Auel series don’t bring the consequences forward to affect contemporary times. These series postulate events that took place so long ago in human history that there are no records – even of what really happened. These are windows into what we can imagine could have happened, we imagine what these long-ago ancestors were like and how they lived – without much in the way of an historical record. Isn’t that what most historical fiction is? So, why, I continue to ask, are these considered SF? Oh, well, in any case…

This series takes place on the land connecting England and the European continent. In the first book, “Stone Spring,” a primitive stone-age people find the will and the resources to push back the encroaching sea which is covering up their heritage and their home. They create a huge retaining wall and reclaim the land. This land bridge creates a very fertile and lucrative homeland – they have a huge repository of high-quality flint, the currency of the times. The ‘alternative history’ gimmick is the idea of a civilization where none has ever existed – at least, that we know of.

In the second book, we jump ahead several thousand years to the Bronze age when war is waged using bronze weapons and armor. The people of Northland are peaceful hunter-gatherers in a time of burgeoning farms and cities. Northland boasts a high level of civilization and culture – which is another device of the author’s since current thought is that high culture and civilization only exists where farming and animal husbandry exists. And this culture is a beacon to the rest of the known world. But a continent-wide drought and the aftermath of a large volcanic explosion cause the farming cultures to fail, sending whole cities and peoples on the move looking for greener pastures.

Within a series of unlikely events, certain people are pulled together to create a conflict. A young girl of Northland, Milaqa, is introduced to a secret society within her people by her uncle and groomed for a role as a warrior cum spy. Their land is visited by a displaced Trojan, Qirum, searching for riches since his home city of Troy was sacked. Milaqa and her uncle meet a slave woman who claims to be a Queen from the far-off land of Hatti , where Turkey is now. Qirum, and Milaqa have a connection and puts her in the position of needing to save his life when the restored Queen plots to kill him. As it turned out, Milaqa should have trusted the Queen to know what she was doing; by saving Qirum, she put into motion events that would threaten the very existence of Northland. In his anger, Qirum gathers an army and marches on Northland, determined to conquer it and gain for himself a new kingdom. Unfortunately, Qirum does not appreciate what the Northlanders have built and has only contempt for their Great Wall. He fails to appreciate the interdependency the society has that enables them to live as they do – close to the land without stripping its resources. Under his siege, the country begins to disintegrate and the authorities of Northland worry about how they will maintain the Wall and avoid becoming a slave society.

The author is much more concerned with plot and his theory of an advanced hunter-gatherer society than his characters, which come off a bit shallow. The plot is well-done but a bit stodgy for me. It really does read as an historical drama. If you like this sort of story, you will appreciate the structure of the series which is pretty clever. At the end of this story, we are teased with the idea of a new ice age coming and the title of the third book is, appropriately, “Iron Winter.” ~~ Catherine Book

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