Ian R. MacLeod

Subterranean Press


232pp/$40/August 2010


Reviewed by Steven H Silver

Ian R. MacLeod's third short story collections, Journeys, continues to present the same high quality fiction as his previous collections: Voyages by Starlight (Arkham House 1996), Breathmoss (Golden Gryphon 2004), and Past Magic (PS Publishing 2006). This collection of nine stories which provide an excellent introduction to MacLeod's writing, in style, quality, and themes.  

MacLeod opens the collection with his World Fantasy Award nominee "The Master Miller's Tale." This steampunky story is set in the same world as MacLeod's 2003 novel The Light Ages, but no knowledge of the earlier work is necessary to enjoy and understand this tale. Nathan Westover is their heir to a Lincolnshire windmill.  Westover is attuned not only to the windmill, but also to the spells which will make the miller's life easier, from spells to call the winds to those that would keep weevils and fire from destroying his hard work.  The world doesn't remain static, however, and Westover's traditions are threatened by the influx of industry.  Although MacLeod clearly has a sympathy for the traditions which Westover defends, MacLeod manages to skillfully manage to avoid turning the story into a Luddite fable. The change brought about by industry is practically unavoidable, but the loss of the old ways of doing things, while sad, can also lead to new opportunities.

"Taking Good Care of Myself" presents an interesting premise of time travel allowing one's younger self to provide elder care to themselves in their final days.  Originally appearing in the scientific journal Nature, the story doesn't have enough length to fully explore the intricacies and tribulations involved with the scenario, which is one which could easily be expanded to create a more satisfying story or novel.

MacLeod presents an alternate history in which England is under the thumb of Moghul conquerors in "The English Mutiny," which essentially allows a retelling of the Sepoy Mutiny.  Mostly a look at the viciousness of rebellion, the story does question the view of history by reversing the "heroes" and "villains."  While an interesting mental idea which has wonderful uses, the alternate history fails because of the impossibility of getting from any point in our own world's history to the world depicted in which the English can mutiny as MacLeod describes.

"Topping Off the Spire" is a story about facing one's fears in the line of duty.  Acrophobic Father Thomas has been tasked with climbing to the top of the spire of his church for the dedication ceremony.  His climb is an introspective look at himself as he tries to prove himself, not only to his fellows, but to himself.  The true reason for his climb, however, is only obliquely referred to and gives the story an added sense of horror and sorrow.

Aspects of steampunk often find their ways into MacLeod's writing, and "Elementals" is a strange mix of steampunk and mysticism.  James Woolfendon figures out how to create and harness the power of elementals in a Victorian England.  One of the aspects of Woolfendon's elementals is that belief is necessary for the elementals to survive and thrive, which runs counter to the natural skepticism which is found in the scientific process.  

"The Camping Wainwrights" is a story about camping in the British countryside, although it quickly becomes apparent that MacLeod has a deeper and more complex view of the relationships between his characters and their ties to the countryside.  The story gradually segues into a darker tale, almost without giving the reader the time to acclimatize to the alternative narrative style. The story contains elements of horror woven deftly into an almost slice of life view as MacLeod's characters go on their family trip, highlighting the horrors that can exist within a family.

MacLeod takes on questions of racism and evolution in "The Hob Carpet," in which humans have subjugated another race to act as their servants in a pre-industrial society.  When the scion of a wealthy family inherits the family estate, he begins to explore more efficient use of his hob servants. Although his experimentation leads to better treatment for the hobs, it doesn't necessarily result in a better understanding of the differences and similarities between the two species.

"On the Sighting of Other Islands" is a melancholy piece about a floating island which occasionally drew near enough to other similar islands that they could be seen.  The inhabitants, however, saw such places as mere temporary wonders, their own lives to full of daily survival to interest themselves in the possible exploration which would add to their worldly knowledge.  MacLeod has, in a few brief strokes, presented a world in which knowledge and curiosity are barely concepts.

Balthazar, who brought myrrh to Mary and Joseph in the manger on the night of Jesus' birth returns to Jerusalem on the "Second Journey of the Magus." What he finds is a city vastly transformed by the child whose coming he attended as Jesus has established His kingdom on Earth.  However, in this version of events, Jesus has given into temptation and become a god of war instead of peace, although with the same eventual goal.  MacLeod creates an interesting kingdom of Christ as those who believe in Him reap the benefits and embrace his vision, but those who don't are faced with destruction. Balthazar, himself, must face a choice after coming face-to-face with Jesus, although his decision is left to the reader's imagination. 

The Master Miller's Tale
Taking Good Care of Myself
The English Mutiny
Topping Off the Spire
The Camping Wainwrights
The Hob Carpet
On the Sighting of Other Islands
Second Journey of the Magus

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