The Light Ages - Ian R. McLeod

Another review for Usenet (or see Google's archive).

The Light Ages
Ian R. MacLeod
EarthLight publishers (Simon & Schuster)
ISBN 0743462424

Ridiculously heady, raises the bar for the entire Fantasy genre; A+.

I don't read cover blurbs anymore. I pay no attention to the little quotes of praise from other authors. So I was quite annoyed with myself when I went into a bookshop for a paper and came out with a paper and a new hardback. This hardback has praise, fulsome praise, from Christopher Fowler, Gardner Dozois, Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolfe, Jeff Vandermeer and James P. Blaylock on it. I was particularly taken with Gene Wolfe's quote:

"I have no idea what [Ian R. MacLeod] looks like, but I picture an angel with polychrome wings, dirty hands, and a well chewed pencil. "

And that, ladies and gents, is why I love reading Gene Wolfe. He manages to conjure a stronger image in a couple of lines than most authors do in entire series. The thing is, I only remembered that quote when looking for the ISBN to type above. Everything else I've read for several months has been eclipsed by The Light Ages . It is a truly wonderful book, and if you have any interest in modern fantasy (by which I mean not just the commercial fat fantasies, but the work of Wolfe, Crowley, or even Mieville and Vandermeer) you must read this novel. Even if you don't, you must read this novel. It's not just an immediate fantasy classic, I think it might become a classic novel. It's that good.

The Light Ages is set in an England that never was, and in particular, in a London that never was. It's a haunting, evocative tale of change, of social revolution, of industrial evolution, of what it means to belong to something, of growing up, of falling in love, of hating those you used to love - you know, the usual story of someone's life. It's a magical book and difficult to do justice to in a short, unplanned review.

On the surface the central conceit of this novel is quite similar to that employed by Walter Jon William's Metropolitan and City On Fire ; those fantasy-as-SF novels has a substance called plasm, a type of magical energy that could be mined from the earth and used as a form of power. The Light Ages has aether; " Aether rules the world. Aether drives the engines, the telegraphs, the very lights of London. "

Where Walter Jon Williams was writing fantasy using SF techniques, this novel is written pretty much as a straight Victorian coming-of-age or generational saga. The structure is very biographical; we follow our hero, Robert Borrows, from his early beginnings in a Yorkshire mining town - where the mining is replaced by the aether engines, where unions and working men's associations are
replaced by secretive Guilds - to his wilder life in London, where he gets entangled with both high-society and the revolutionary fringe.

Although there are many passages which have the lush, fantastically horrific imagery of something like Perdido Street Station, the Dragonlice or Kingrats, for example, or the varied stigmata borne proudly by the factory floor workers from each guild, much of the book lacks obviously fantastical elements. This is an Industrial Age, and while Robert was raised on Fairy Tales of Goldenwhite leading an army of the fey, his everyday life is one dominated by the relentless pounding of the aether engines, terrace houses, relative poverty and a future containing only backbreaking work after his induction into his father's guild, the Lesser Toolmakers. In this world, the grimy coating of soot on everything is replaced by the glittery Engine Ice, a substance formed from aether which has lost its potency.

His mother, a painter in the same factory as his father, is slightly odd. She fills his head with fairy tales, and in key scene early on takes him to visit a neighbour in a nearby town. In a world where communion at mass reveals visions of a perfect heaven, and every child carries a mark of testing on their wrist, Robert is surprised to meet a fairy - and old woman called Mistress Summerton. While seemingly human, she is obviously part of that which decent people don't discuss in polite company. Robert is packed off with a Mistress Summerton's young girl charge, Annalise. Although very young at this point, Robert is captivated by Annalise and the memory of her means as much to him as the special nature of the trip his mother took him on. Robert is to tell no-one of the trip, and the reason for this soon becomes evident. In later years the adolescent Robert becomes increasingly isolated from his mother, who is now sick. Her feverish decline isn't consumption though; she is succumbing to the darker effects of aether, she is becoming a troll. Although still his mother, over several months Robert watches her become a spined, overly-tall flame belching horror. During this time his father chooses to drink himself to oblivion, while his practical and long-suffering sister takes the nursing upon herself.

Eventually of course, the often-whispered about troll-man must be called, and his mother is taken away. To an asylum of sorts. Through-out this horrific time in Robert's life his rage has grown; the nature of his mother's 'illness' makes him a target for his schoolmates and by the time he is to be inducted into the guild and start his working life as a Lesser Toolmakers he completes his rebellion and jumps onto an aether train bound for London and another life.

If the working class life of the proud but poor of Yorkshire's industrial heartland wasn't evocative enough, MacLeod then introduces us a wilder and headier treat. Robert swiftly runs into trouble in London, and is taken in by a minor thief and political agitator. Soon, the pair of them are getting more heavily involved in the revolutionary plotting - a new age is coming with the turn of the century and the privileges of the Guilds must be broken, the power and wealth of the senior guild figures being an obvious nobility in this England with no royalty and no landed class.

Then everything changes when Robert meets Anna, Anna Winters, the fey Annalise of his youth, seemingly human, but without the mark on her wrist. She now has a mark, and an invented past at odds with what Robert knows. Robert swiftly falls in love with his changeling all over again, and gets adopted into their social circle by Anna's friend friend Sadie, the socialite daughter of Anthony
Passington, Greatgrandmaster Exultant of the Great Guild of Telegraphers. Robert, the lowest of the low, finds it surprisingly easy to sink into the highest of high society, but only as a curiosity, "OneOfSadie'sDiscoveries" as the whisperers have it. Following a humiliation during a high society event, Robert flees from the bewildering and bewitching Anna and back to his revolutionary friends, back to writing fiery articles on the grimy presses to rouse the working classes.

The plot rushes headlong from there, the civil unrest, the rabble-rousers, the politics would all be fascinating, but the central thread follows the love story, of sorts, between Robert and Anna, who get entangled in finding out what happened to Robert's mother all those years ago, and uncover a web of conspiracy surrounding the Guilds and aether production.

All of which might outline the plot, but doesn't do justice to the world MacLeod has built. It's a heady opium dream, told in simple, well-constructed and amazingly affecting prose. Robert Borrows is a marvellous hero, and his life is peopled with other giants - the enigma that is Anna, and the surprisingly deep Sadie easily over-shadow the fantastical flourishes, with the Guild masters hunting manufactured Dragons on Unicorns at Christmas. The corrupting and transformative nature of aether is a central theme, and it's mirror in several other themes, the change within Robert, the change within society, the change within Anna and Sadie.

I can't recommend this book highly enough; I sat awake all night reading it, I let my breakfast get cold the next day while I finished it. I've never heard of Ian R. MacLeod before, although I've seen him mentioned in Interzone; I understand he's well known for his short fiction. Needless to say, I'm off to find as much of that fiction as I can. This is as evocative as anything I've read by Dickens, or Peake, as rewarding as anything by Eco, as beguiling as anything by Jeffrey Ford, as fantastical as anything by Jeff Vandermeer, as lush and horrific as anything by Mieville.

Posted: Sun - June 8, 2003 at 11:51 PM