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Iron Winter
by Stephen Baxter
ROC, $26.95, 479pp
Publication Date: November 5, 2013
This is the final book in The Northland Trilogy. Click here for link to Bronze Summer, the second book. In this series, the author plays with a couple ‘what if’ scenarios in an alternate history story: what if the land bridge between England and Europe wasn’t submerged, and ‘what if’ a hunter-gatherer society became the most advanced civilization on the planet. Now, you have Northland – a society that lives within the walls of the most extraordinary man-made habitat on the planet. A society that exists below sealevel because their ancestors built a huge retaining wall to keep out the sea; and subsequent generations have kept building onto the wall until the incredible structure literally houses thousands and thousands of people. People come to Northland from all over the planet to participate in annual events, to meet with other scholars, and, sometimes, just to gawk as tourists. Northland has contributed to stability throughout the known world both politically and culturally; within their walled archives is the knowledge of hundreds of generations, and even the remains of important religious figures such as Jesus Sharruma and his mother, Mary. Such long-term stability never happened in our history; even the great Library of Alexandria eventually disappeared. Each book is a window into Northland during different epochs: the stone age, the bronze age, and now the iron age.

In this story, climate changes are becoming more obvious and more disrupting. Something is obviously happening and everyone everywhere is affected. Lack of rain is creating huge dustbowls and agriculture is failing, encroachment of glaciers is changing the ecosystem of the oceans and major food sources are disappearing. The ice is also threatening whole societies who don’t know how to survive in such a climate. Cities are being abandoned as entire populations move south. Unfortunately, there are plenty of people who already live in the south so war for resources is inevitable.

In Northland, one scholar, Pyxeas, has been studying climate changes for longer than most people have even been aware of them. He claims to know what is happening but is searching for the why. He decides to travel to far-off Cathay to meet with another scholar and compare their findings. He warns his friends and family that it is time to abandon Northland and move south while they still can. Rina, a member of the matriarchal government, decides to take his advice and migrates south with her two adolescent children. The government argues about priorities: how to defend against refugees, where to find food, and, with the derision of some - how to protect their cultural knowledge.

Meanwhile, as the cold gets more severe, Northland fragments and neighbors now struggle against each other for what’s left of the food. Two resourceful men gather their families and friends and retreat farther into the great Wall, into passages and caverns long abandoned. To survive, they are forced to embrace a more primitive lifestyle and take cues from those who have lived in the arctic. Defending their libraries and archives is useless and unthinkable.

Pyxeas, with the help of a servant who comes from the arctic regions, struggles against the increasingly volatile climate changes, lack of food, and the inherent dangers of travel during times of social upheaval and potential war. He does finally reach Cathay and meets with his friend. Together they find answers to why this is happening; but, more importantly to Pyxeas, is what he can do to preserve humanity. The clincher, for the author, is how the marvelous Northland civilization is actually the main catalyst for the impending ice age.

Rina and her two children finally find refuge in Carthage but at great expense. Her wealth, as well as most of their possessions, are gone. Her son is conscripted into the army, her daughter disappears into the city and Rina is reduced to a household servant. Her story, well…really her son’s story, connects with Pyxeas and his plan to return to Northland. Pyxeas finally understands humanity’s effect on the climate changes and he has a plan to preserve knowledge for future generations. But it’s doubtful whether his health is sufficient for the perilous journey back to Northland. It’s equally doubtful if anything will remain of Northland or its culture, to save.

This was a much more exciting and interesting book than the preceding two. I found the characters more compelling. While Baxter is obviously very interested in his science and research, and he left his characters in the first two books a bit…unfinished…in my opinion; he put in a lot more effort in these characters and it shows. The plot was more interesting with the whole world as his palette rather than just Northland. Don’t let the underlying theme of humans-effect-on-climate-change stop you from enjoying this book, no matter which side of that fence you’re on. For me, the more fascinating idea to ruminate on was: what might we know now if our history hadn’t been so volatile with entire civilizations, and their knowledge, destroyed and forgotten. ~~ Catherine Book

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