Beyond the Burn Line by Paul McAuley

This entry is part 9 of 23 in the series 2023 Reads

Like other reads, this one is being posted a little while after I’ve finished it. Not too long, I hope, but that depends on how busy I get, I suppose. I read this because it was recommended for a group read on one of the Discords I’m on. I was among the slowest to finish reading it, but I am glad I did. 

Beyond the Burn Line is a book that is split into two parts.

The first part is the slow, quiet story of a scholar unintentionally getting mixed up in an adventure. There’s something of the literary Western in it—in the particular way it sings of the wild countryside, of the harsh environment, of small and rough communities in out of the way places, and of travel through that wilderness by horseback (or by “mara,” the name given to mounts in this setting). It seems clearly to be our world in the deep future, seemingly long after we humans have blown ourselves out of existence in multiple ways at once. The focus is on in a civilization of creatures that once were the slaves of (sentient) bears: small, furry humanoids apparently evolved from some other mammal species (whose eventual evolutionary background is revealed in Part 2). It’s a story about keeping promises, and about investigating a mystery all too familiar to us: reports of lights in the sky and strange sightings of “visitors.” However, it’s the social world of these creatures, and their travels in a partly unsettled wilderness, that makes up most of the text, and I was there for it. 

The second part of the story jumps forward in time, and trades this mystery for another (or, really, for multiple interlocking mysteries). I’m not going to spoil any of those, but I will say the second half, while it has a lot of interesting things to say and while some of the characters are well-written, engaged me less deeply than the first half of the novel did. That said, I think part of the point of the second half is about discomfort and about people confronting enormous problems that we as individuals struggle to address or to handle. It felt quite timely, especially as a Canadian having seen the media explode in about five different directions at once over what white Canadians seem to think are brand new revelations about residential schools. (They’re not brand new revelations, and they’re far from as deniable as the right-wing in Canada wants to pretend.) With that in mind, how much of my own reaction is informed by subconscious discomfort and a feeling of being reminded about real-life sorrow—and how much of that is by the author’s design—is hard to say.  

Either way, it’s a worthwhile novel and I’m happy to have picked it up. 

Series Navigation<< <i>Sandman Omnibus</i>, Volume III by Neil Gaiman and Others<i>Ghosts</i> by Raina Telgemeier and <i>Sheets</i> by Brenna Thummler >>

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