Book review: Iron Winter by Stephen Baxter

The year is 1315 A.D. The Wall of Northland has stood firm for over 8,000 years, keep the ocean out of what we know as the North Sea. Now, at the dawn of an early industrial era, Northland stands with its ally, Mongol Cathay (China) as one of the world’s two greatest powers. But all is not well in Northland, for the ice, now remembered only in myth, is returning. What in our world was the beginning of the Little Ice Age, in the world of Northland is the beginning of the next big one.

This is the bleak and treacherous world that Stephen Baxter paints in Iron Winter, the conclusion to the Northland Trilogy that began with Stone Spring and Bronze Summer.

History has played out strangely in this world. Heir to the inventive Greek traditions of Pythagoras, Northland is one of the few powers that wields eruptors (cannons) or travels by steam carriage (railroad), and is developing the rudiments of modern chemistry. Yet at the same time, the architectural style is stained glass and flying buttresses, and art has only begun to experiment with the new look-deep (perspective) techniques.

Politics has also played out strangely. The Americas are in regular contact with Northland by sea, and the major powers of the Mediterranean are Carthage, Muslim Egypt, and the Hatti (Hittite) Empire. Nor is religion untouched. Jesus still existed, but he was never crucified (“some say to his own astonishment”), and he is only worshiped by the Hatti.

But into this orderly world comes the Longwinter–the next great Ice Age–turning summers into winters in the space of a few short years. Drought, famine, and plague grip the world as has never before been seen in history, and only Pyxeas, the old scholar of Northland, braving the steppes of Asia and the dangers of Mongol Cathay, can save civilization.

Iron Winter is the most compact of the Northland Trilogy in narrative terms, with the entire story taking place in just four years, something I consider one of its strengths as it allows the stories of the many characters to be fully fleshed out and the danger to the characters to be brought front and center.

Once again, Mr. Baxter does an artful job of telling parallel story threads that, while not deeply connected, nonetheless touch each other in profound ways. There are few heroes in Iron Winter in the traditional sense. Against the advance of the ice, there is little that anyone can do but survive.

This story is human tragedy more than human triumph. The world is more familiar to us, despite the anachronisms, but Mr. Baxter’s telling of how it falls to pieces in the space of a few short years is, literally and figuratively, chilling. And yet, even when the few who remain are just clinging to life, there remains a hope to rebuild.

To the dark and complex conclusion to the Northland Trilogy, I give–

My rating: 4.5 out of 5.0

About Alex R. Howe

I'm a full-time astrophysicist and a part-time science fiction writer.
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