Makepeace is one of the last survivors in the bleak Far North - a Siberia peopled by those who have fled from the cities and the greed. She lives a quiet and desolate life that is thrown upside down by the arrival of another survivor into the dead city that she patrols each day on horseback. So begins a series of events that sees Makepeace discover what has happened to the world outside the confines of her city.
Far North is a stark, quiet, tired novel. The world as we know it is dead; horizons are closer and the land feels smaller; primitive people are making more of a success of life than those who once ruled the cities. It is an intriguing read, but never an easy one. Light-hearted moments are not to be found, and hope is in short supply.
The prose is pared-down and brusque, narrated by Makepeace from a first person perspective, with her hard-earned wisdom:
"Human beings are rat-cunning and will happily kill you twice over for a hot meal. That's what long observation has taught me. On the other hand, with a full belly, and a good harvest in the barn, and a fire in the hearth, there's nothing so charming, so generous, no one more decent than a well-fed man. But take away his food, make his future uncertain, let him know that no one's watching him and he won't just kill you, he'll come up with a hundred and one reasons why you deserve it."
Rather than plot, which is slight, the novel deals with exploring the idea of what a world would be like where global warming has reached its inevitable conclusion, where mankind is gradually dying out. It is definitely a social commentary - a warning or prediction of what might happen in our future.
This is not a novel that I can say, hand on heart, that I enjoyed reading (it is too grim for that) - but I admired it. It is beautifully written, with some exceptional descriptive work, and surprises right to the last page. Makepeace is a very effective narrator - practical to a fault:
"It struck me early on that if they prayed less, they'd eat better, but as a guest, I felt bound to keep my thoughts to myself."
Overall, I think that Far North has important messages to impart, and that it is written beautifully. I would recommend to this to those who read and enjoyed The Road by Cormac McCarthy.
Arthur Clarke thoughts: Well, my fourth read of the short-list contenders and yet another very different novel! In terms of writing, message, science fiction elements and concepts, I would definitely say that this is the book that can come closest to defeating The City and The City for the award. It is clever, grim and written by a superlative storyteller with an exceptionally strong voice. Moving from Retribution Falls straight into Far North has revealed just how stellar the line-up of books on the short-list is - so far each of them has offered a different perspective on the nature of science fiction literature. This is a very strong contender for the Arthur C. Clarke award.