The Light Ages
by Ian R. MacLeod
Review by John Berlyne
Ace Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0441010555
Date: May 2003 List Price £16.11 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Links: Interview: Ian R. MacLeod /
Described by Macleod on his web site as "part science-fantasy, part alternative-history, part magical realism", The Light Ages tells of an England of an earlier time - the precise dates are never specified, at least not in calendar terms we'd recognize, but it is clear that this is post Industrial Revolution. Actually that's not quite accurate. In Macleod's Britain the Industrial Revolution did take place, but it happened very differently. Back in the 1600s Aether was discovered, a magical substance, 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. But such power comes at a price. Aether, like Uranium for want of a contemporary, real-life example, is an inherently dangerous substance and those who come into direct contact with it can suffer from the terrible side effects of trollism. Cruel society shuns such changelings.
In the Yorkshire town of Bracebridge, a place famed from it's aether production, young Robert Barrows witnesses the truly terrible transformation of his own mother. Once a beautiful and vibrant woman working in the aether paintshops of the Toolmaker's Guild, she metamorphosises into something less than human, a monster. Unwilling to follow his father's footsteps into the Guild, Robert elects to run away to London to seek his fortune. There he becomes involved with city's political underworld, among which is a revolutionary group aiming to move society forward to a new modern age. He also becomes entangled in High Society, obsessed by Anna Winters, a beautiful young woman whom he had first met as a child back in Yorkshire along with her ghoulish guardian Mistress Summerton. As he flits between these two class strata, Robert uncovers secrets that will eventually lead him back home to Yorkshire, secrets that will be the undoing of society and will change it forever.
Two paragraphs of summary can in no way convey the rich and dark complexity of this extraordinary novel. Macleod infuses his text with a heavy industrial thud, an insistent hammering that propels the reader through the story. The Light Ages is clearly influenced by some of the greatest writers Britain has produced - genre and non-genre, living and dead. Macleod's London is the city touched upon by Charles Dickens and China Miéville - dark, brooding, dangerous, politically volatile. Indeed Robert's arrival in London is a scene straight out of Oliver Twist. More Dickens too back in Yorkshire with shadows of Great Expectations, of Robert, just like Pip, captivated by Anna (Estella) and Mistress Summerton (Miss Havisham). Bracebridge also made me think of the alternative rural and industrial Britain evoked by Keith Roberts in Pavane and also to some extent, George Orwell. In The Light Ages we recognize where we are, but we know it is fundamentally different - a concept I have never seen better encapsulated than in the opening line of 1984. And the idea of the turning of the ages, of time spent on the cusp at the end of one era and the birth of another, a theme central to this novel, evokes certain works of E.M. Forster and Waugh's Brideshead Revisited.
Macleod is acknowledging all these influences in The Light Ages. What is also clear is that his own extraordinary vision and voice powerfully joins in this chorus of celebrating and criticising the very character of Britain. The Light Ages is a work of great subtlety, it's pacing is slow, steady and deliberately relentless and thus compulsive in the reading; the political polemic is unforgiving and deeply felt, even shocking at times; the fantasy elements are woven delicately into the fabric of the story with great artistry and the complex restructuring of society is flawless in its invention and insight.
The Light Ages is by no means a quick read - it will take you some time to wonder along its dark alleys and under its iron grey skies - but it is a hugely accomplished and literary novel and your time will be well spent indeed. It is an ingenious and undoubtedly important work, both for Macleod and the genre at large and one that should certainly have its author very much in the running for a third WFA statuette. Very highly recommended.