This week on Down the Stacks, I looked up Stephen Baxter, the co-author of Terry Prachett’s The Long Earth. Baxter is an aid speculative fiction writer with a particular interest in alternative history. The book I’ve selected for this week’s review is one of those alternate histories: Stone Spring, first entry in the Northland Trilogy.
Stone Spring is set approximately 10,000 years ago, when the last Ice Age was still retreating, humanity was mostly in the hunter-gatherer phase, and the seas were low enough for England and the European Continent to be connected by a landbridge large enough to support a couple tribes. The glaciers are melting, however, and the land is undergoing seismic shifts, and so the sea is gradually rising to claim this “Northland.”
That is, unless the inhabitants have something to say about it.
Stone Spring follows the life of Ana, a girl from the leading family of the Etxeler tribe that lives on Northland’s north coast and serves as the gathering point for regular gatherings of neighboring tribes from Albia (England) and the Continent. Etxeler’s main, or only really, stock in trade is high-quality flint. Life is not great for Ana, what with her mother dead in childbirth, her father lost at sea, and the day of her coming-of-age ceremony darkened by the arrival of a pair of rude Petrani boys from Albia, the sudden death of her grandmother during the ceremony, and the priest’s announcement that Ana’s totem animal is the much-dreaded owl. In the absence of anyone older, Ana’s sister Zesi takes charge of the Etxeler tribe, and life moves on as best it can.
Meanwhile, Novu, a boy from the biblical city of Jericho - perhaps the only walled and agriculture-based settlement in this ancient world - is sold into slavery and set on a path that will lead him toward Etxeler, and Ana’s father comes ashore on the American continent to discover the last, and very pregnant, woman of an Ice-Age tribe and decides to take her back home with him.
After these separate threads come together, geologic forces conspire to send a tsunami at Etxeler, killing many. In the aftermath, Ana decides that she’s not going to stand for losing her home and, with Novu’s knowledge of brickmaking and architecture as a launching point, conspires to build dykes and drainage mechanisms to push the sea back.
Stone Spring starts out quite strong, and it’s clear that Baxter has put a lot of research into the lands and people who may have lived on and passed through Northland. The characters Display their personalities and their disparate cultures well through most of the book, and conflicts that arise due to culture differences between the Etxeler, the Pretani, and the snailheads are interesting and dramatic. By the end, however, the characters get flattened by the story’s need to see Ana’s seawall project come to completion and for a final battle to take place. Any major character who isn’t killed in the tsunami rapidly devolves into single-note talking heads obsessed with the wall in their own way. New characters are brought in as the years go by and children grow up, and while these younger characters clearly have interesting stories of their own developing, they’re ultimately just sidelined after helping to reveal how the work is proceeding.
My biggest complaint is how Zesi turns out in the end. When we’re introduced to her, Zesi is an intelligent, take-charge kind of person who rises to the challenge of leading the Etxeler tribe after her grandmother’s death, but not much of a long-term planner. She turns out to have a strong stubborn streak and difficulty sharing or giving up authority, but she’s still a relatable supporting character. After the tsunami and the beginnings of Ana’s dyke plan, however, Zesi changes almost immediately into an obsessive, dangerous reactionary who can do nothing but mock and criticize her own sister. She becomes an antagonist that the story really could’ve done without.
Despite its strong start and interesting premise, Stone Spring ends on a flat, cliche note and struggles with pacing at times. Whole seasons and even years are skipped over in the latter third, forcing characters to either undergo sudden unseen development or remain rather stagnant so that the reader will still recognize them as the dyke and related projects proceed at the right in-universe pace for a society just starting to emerge from the hunter-gatherer phase.
If stone-age drama is your sort of thing, then Stone Spring might be worth your time. As for me, I found myself disappointed in Stephen Baxter.