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The Light Ages
Ian R. MacLeod
Ace, 456 pages

The Light Ages
Ian R. MacLeod
Ian R. MacLeod was born in Solihull, near Birmingham, in the West Midlands in 1956. He decided to study law and to attend Birmingham Polytechnic. After various jobs, he ended up working in the Civil Service. When his wife Gillian became pregnant in 1990, he thought the idea of being a full-time house-husband and writer was a worthy one. His first sale, "1/72nd Scale," was nominated for the Nebula Award for the year's best novella. Other stories have appeared in the Year's Best SF and Year's Best Fantasy and Horror. His first novel, The Great Wheel, won the Locus Award for the Year's Best First novel and his second, an alternative history story titled The Summer Isles, won the World Fantasy Award as a novella. He now teaches English and creative writing part-time.

Ian R. MacLeod Website
ISFDB Bibliography

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Gabe Mesa

Fans of Ian R. MacLeod (present company included) have had a difficult time finding his work in book form. His 1997 dystopian novel The Great Wheel was poorly promoted and vanished quickly, while Voyages By Starlight, his excellent, eclectic 1996 short story collection, is available only from specialty press Arkham House despite deserving a broader audience. Neither book has ever made it to a paperback edition. We have accordingly had to be satisfied with MacLeod's occasional appearances in Asimov's and other venues. Ace Books has now rectified this sad state of affairs by publishing MacLeod's superb new fantasy, The Light Ages.

I was born Robert Borrows in Bracebridge, Brownheath, West Yorkshire late one August Sixshiftday afternoon in the seventy-sixth year of the third great cycle of our Ages of Industry, the only son and second child of a lower master of the Lesser Guild of Toolmakers.
The reference to West Yorkshire and to the month of August places this fantasy in our world, but the mention of a "Sixshiftday" hints at a very different England from the one we know. It is an alternate England, in fact, one in the middle of its own Industrial Revolution, albeit a revolution powered not by coal but by a magical substance called "aether" which serves not only as an energy source but as an all-purpose industrial helper, woven into materials to allow them to last longer and maintain their shape. Aether requires handling with care; it is dangerous, akin to a radioactive material, but the consequences of improper handling are not merely physical. Victims of direct, prolonged exposure to aether begin to change, to lose some of their fundamental humanity and take on some of the magical qualities of the aether itself, until they end up as changelings -- creatures of magic and, to humans, horror. Changelings have no rights. They are the untouchables of this alternate England, placed in asylums, subjected to abuse and mistreatment and eventually exploited, for in their changed state they have a special, mysterious relationship to aether that allows them to perform tasks no human would dare attempt.

The mistreatment of changelings is not the only thing that seems positively medieval in this alternate England. The entire social structure is built around a labor caste system of guilds, each composed of a hierarchy in which the ordinary guildsmen lie at the bottom, ruled in turn by Masters and Grandmasters. Robert Borrows is born into one of the lowlier guilds in the village of Bracebridge, a town that lives off the mining of aether. He leads a normal existence, living with his parents and older sister, going to school... barring any disaster he will one day be expected to follow his father into the toolmakers' guild and into the same life of grinding, borderline poverty. One day, however, Robert accompanies his mother on a mysterious trip to a rundown house in a nearby town where they visit an elderly lady by the name of Mistress Summerton and in the process meet her captivating young ward Annalise. Shortly after the visit, Robert's mother takes ill and the family's worst fears are realized when it becomes clear that she is transforming into a changeling, for reasons Robert can't fathom. After Robert's mother dies in the process of being committed to an asylum, young Robert decides to escape Bracebridge for London.

In London, Robert falls in with a group thieves and pickpockets, but these are not ordinary members of the underworld. They are revolutionaries of a sort, calling one another "citizen" and seeking, sometimes more romantically than practically, the overthrow of the caste system and the dawning of a promised new age. In London, Robert will again meet the now older and even more bewitching Annalise, who under the name of Anna Winters has become the center of a group of elite guildsfolk and lives, it would seem, far beyond her means. As Robert's fascination with Annalise grows and he decides to learn more about her, his investigation uncovers far more than he could have ever expected, including not only the nature of Annalise and Mistress Summerton but the ties that bind them to Robert and his mother as well as the true story behind his mother's illness and death. It is a discovery that may prove to have enormous consequences not only for Robert but for all of their caste-driven society as he uncovers a conspiracy that lies at the heart of the rotten guild system.

It would seem difficult to write a bildungsroman set in an industrializing England and not owe a debt to Dickens. That debt is clearly evident in MacLeod's novel, not only in the episodes of gritty realism or in the urge to depict the extremes of social stratification, from the most abject poverty to the most rarefied wealth, but also in its deep sense of place. Transformed by MacLeod's fantastic alchemy, London in particular manages to be both instantly recognizable and subtly, strangely different, while Bracebridge has all the characteristics one would associate with an industrial northern English town.

Beyond Dickens, the influence of Peake is also unmistakable, particularly in the deep sense of melancholy that pervades the book all the way through to its bittersweet ending. China Miéville has written of his wish to derive from Peake a literature of the fantastic that would stand in opposition to the hollow, escapist, comforting fare that passes for fantastic fiction today. If so, he might think of MacLeod as a kindred spirit. Whether MacLeod shares Miéville's ideological convictions is uncertain but also beside the point. Despite all the talk about revolutions, new ages and ideals betrayed, the novel turns out to be less about politics in the end than about love, in particular love unrequited, love frustrated, love squandered. But in that respect, or in any other, it is safe to say that there is nothing fundamentally comforting about The Light Ages. If it is light fare the reader is seeking, they may wish to seek elsewhere.

The Light Ages is, quite simply, an excellent novel. Creative, original, profound and stocked with utterly believable principal and secondary characters. In the end, however, the most captivating element of the book is quite simply the language. That from among this year's offerings you may read a better fantasy is possible, but that you may find a better written one is unlikely. MacLeod's prose manages to be both immersive and exquisite and manages an impeccable consistency of quality throughout.

The six year wait for a new book by Ian MacLeod has more than paid off. The Light Ages is already a clear contender for the best fantasy novel of the year and will undoubtedly grace many a top ten list.

Copyright © 2003 Gabe Mesa

Gabe Mesa lives in New York City with his wife and daughter and 4,000 books.

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