The House of Storms
by Ian R. MacLeod
Review by John Berlyne
Pocket Books Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 0743462475
Date: 06 February, 2006 List Price £6.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
I was greatly impressed by Ian R. Macleod's 2003 novel, The Light Ages (see my review here), in particular the visionary central conceit around which that novel took place. His backdrop of a Britain shaped by the discovery and use of a magical substance called aether gave us a fascinating and solid setting which he now explores further in his latest novel The House of Storms. If I may be so bold as to quote myself, my description of aether in that previous review still holds true for this new novel - "...pumped from the ground like oil. Mystical and volatile, aether is the lubricant that allows society to run. It is aether that causes the trains to run on time, that keeps buildings from falling down and that fuels the economic furnace that has put the Great in Britain". The Light Ages, with its echoes of Great Expectations told a story paralleling Dickensian Britain and now Macleod brings his history perhaps eighty or ninety years forward to a time of new thinking and of civil strife.
The House of Storms begins with a doting mother and her sick adolescent son retreating to a west country estate. Europe's many spa towns have so far failed to cure the consumptive boy Ralph, and his mother, Greatgrandmistress Alice Meynell, is full of hope that a stay at Invercombe will achieve some improvement in his condition. As the wife of the Grandmaster of the Guild of Telegraphers, Alice has great power and vast wealth at her calling, but Macleod wastes no time in telling us that this is a very independent and capable woman - indeed she is very much a master manipulator. But for all her stature, the boy remains sick.
Invercombe however is a special place - quite what makes it special is vague, but it serves, initially at least, as talisman of hope and potential. Thus the boy regains his health and indeed displays a hunger for knowledge and experience that the house itself seems to feed. With her son on the mend, Alice returns to her manipulations and Macleod deftly turns her from caring mother into the antagonist of the novel (a switch that is cleverly done.) A sub-plot develops involving a feisty young maid engaged by Alice with whom her son becomes involved - indeed infatuated with. Their relationship blossoms at Invercombe, as indeed, everything seems to. It is place of fertility - physical, emotional and intellectual and as part one of the novel draws to a close there is wonderful warm feeling of potential in the air. But how these hopes are dashed...
As the novel moves into its second act, Alice is revealed as nothing short of a monster in human terms, though, as with The Light Ages before it, there are real monsters in this world - those changelings infected by the potency of the aether. These too are an integral part of this novel. Away from the haven of Invercombe, Alice continues with her politicking and the end result is no less than civil war in Britain. In this, Macleod mirrors the events at Invercombe - the buoyant optimism, burgeoning health and blossoming of young love with a stark and terrible depiction of the horrors, privations and confusions of war. Though this direction is strongly written, The House of Storms descends into a grinding and incessantly bleak story and though the exploration of a parallel Great (if civil) War driven by aether is a fascinating one, in truth it not easy or entertaining reading. Macleod, glorious though his prose is, devotes much time to great passages of hopeless wandering and the reader must trudge along with the characters through swathes of mud and toil. It is not a comfortable journey.
It's fair to say that The House of Storms is very much a dichotomous novel - one comes away from it having experienced both great hope and great despair, but it is very much the latter that stays with reader upon turning the final page.