Ian MacLeod has been writing short stories since 1989; his novellette "1/72nd Scale" was a finalist for the 1990 Nebula Award, and he has been a runner-up for the Hugo Award three times.
It was 1997 before his first novel, The Great Wheel, was published to comparatively little notice. It is only now, with the publication of his second novel, The Light Ages, that MacLeod looks to have made the transition to a novelist of some stature.
The Light Ages is the story of an alternate England in "The Third Age of Aether." Aether powers the world, in the same way that fossil fuel currently powers ours. History diverged in "1668 according to the old calendar," with the discovery of the substance. This world is stagnant, with technology held back by over-reliance on the magical properties of Aether, and without the impetus given our society by two World Wars.
The geography is broadly the same, although China is referred to as Cathay, and there is an early reference to the Borealis Sea. Society is stratified by the stultifying influence of the Guilds. Even the calendar has been changed, so that twelve-day-long Shifts have replaced weeks; Sunday is now Noshiftday.
As the easy sources of Aether are exhausted, deep subterranean mines pock the English landscape. Rather than pastoral, this is truly industrial fantasy, so rigorous in its extrapolation that it's stylistically as much science fiction as fantasy.
In Bracebridge, a Yorkshire town almost literally built on Aether, nine-year-old Robert Borrows is the son of a minor Guildsman and Guildswoman. Robert's mother suffers from the effects of accidental exposure to Aether, which transmogrifies people and animals into changelings, trolls, and werebeasts. The children of those who have suffered accidents may be born as changelings. These offspring are hunted, persecuted, often used in Aether experiments.
Robert, fortunately, passes the test to prove he is not a changeling. To celebrate his passing, Robert's mother has a picnic. It is at this picnic that Robert meets AnnaLise, who later will become the love of his life.
What MacLeod does exceptionally well is to detail the effects of Aether. The large strokes, such as trolls and werebeasts, are easy, but the smaller, more delicate daubs offer the sign of a clever and thoughtful writer. The landscape, flowers, clothes, fish -- everything is affected by Aether. These details give the book a truly magical feel.
As Robert grows older, his mother suffers a marked decline, as the exposure to Aether takes its toll on her health. Following her death, Robert becomes an unsettled adolescent. For the next few years, he roams the moors, fighting, drifting, until finally running off to London to start anew.
Re-invented as Robbie, he meets again AnnaLise, who now calls herself Anna, as well as Sadie, the rich but amoral daughter of the Great-Guildmaster. The twenty or so pages when Robbie and Anna gatecrash a ball are truly joyous to read. MacLeod doesn't allow this mood to last, and even comments on the illusory nature of the evening.
The marketing blurb for The Light Ages compares MacLeod to Dickens and Peake, but in the next section of the story, the author I most often thought of was the George Orwell of Down and Out In Paris and London, another raptor-eyed dissector of society.
As the years pass, the sociopolitical element becomes more and more important. One of the pleasures of reading alternate histories is to compare and contrast to our own. MacLeod cleverly never nails the events clearly to a year in our calendar -- although each age is a hundred years, sometimes the ages last over a century -- but there is a real 1960s feel to this section, though it's the 1960s of the Paris riots. As in our calendar, with the passing of the years, the radicals grow in fervour, and the fabric of society begins to unravel.
Robert is invited to Sadie's family home, a vast country estate. Anna is there, as is George, an upper class Guildsman who is as in love with her as Robert is. Even the rich know that change is in the air, but it isn't the peaceful sea-change that Robert hopes for, but instead bloody confrontation made all the more shocking by the beauty of the setting. The horror of Butterfly Day, as the massacre becomes known, sums up MacLeod's writing perfectly: beauty and horror and squalor all in one.
Robbie and Anna flee London, and return to Bracebridge, where Robbie learns the truth behind the accident that changed his mother, and in so doing, discovers a scandal that could bring about the New Age he believes England so badly needs.
Such is the moral complexity of MacLeod's fiction that the cost is perhaps more than Anna, Sadie, and George and, above all, Robbie can really bear. But Robbie, driven to reveal the truth at all costs, does not hesitate.
The Third Age of Aether ends in revolution; from the finely-wrought descriptions of the death of a unicorn, to the fiery destruction of a mountain of spent Aether, MacLeod is relentless in showing both the best and worst of humanity, and the legacy the revolution leaves.
The ending is unexpected. MacLeod avoids presenting it as either triumph or tragedy, but instead The Light Ages ends in both, and neither.
The book isn't completely faultless. The first hundred pages are the weakest. I'm unconvinced of the necessity of the opening scene-setting section. The Grim Northern feel of Bracebridge almost teeters on the edge of parody. The almost-continual references to the SHOOM BOOM of the underground pumps quickly becomes irritating, an unnecessary stylistic intrusion into the narrative. Also, there is some skepticism that there wouldn't be huge efforts made to find replacements for Aether -- electricity does feature, but only tangentially.
These elements could have been edited, but MacLeod does so many other things well that it seems curmudgeonly to focus on minor flaws such as these.
Instead, let's focus on the many things MacLeod did right. With its rich characterization, superb description, depth of invention, and understanding of the moral complexities of the real world, The Light Ages is one of the major novels of 2003. It is a fine and powerful tale, with images and characters which will stay with the reader long after the book has been put down.
Copyright © 2004 Colin Harvey
Colin Harvey's previous credits include several appearances in Aphelion webzine and Peridot Books. He is a regular columnist for This Way Up webzine. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. His previous contribution to Strange Horizons is available in our archive.
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