Sunday 17 June 2018

The Light Ages, and The House of Storms, by Ian R. MacLeod

Yet another book that has been sitting on my reading pile for years (it was published in 2003). I finally decided to read The Light Ages following my usual highly discriminating selection process: I accidentally kicked over a pile of books and this was the first one I picked up. I have to admit I was intrigued by the recommendations on the cover, with Michael Moorcock, Brian Aldiss, Gene Wolf and Christopher Fowler all featured, and comparisons made with Dickens, China Miéville, Pullman’s Northern Lights trilogy (must read that again sometime), and Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast series (must read that again soon).

So what is it all about? It’s an alternative world fantasy, one in which the primary difference from our own dear if somewhat battered planet is the existence of aether: a magical substance which is pumped out of the ground and used – well, to make everything work. A little bit of aether, properly channelled by the minds and words of highly trained guildsmen, can be used to make the most rickety bridge solid, the most botched-up steam engine run smoothly at otherwise impossible pressures, and to send messages across the country at the speed of thought. Of course, that means that people don’t have to bother much with technology, which is fairly primitive. Also needless to say, each specialism has its own guild which jealously guards its secrets, and the Grandmasters of which are wealthy beyond the dreams of championship footballers resident in tax havens, as well as wielding huge political power. But aether is dangerous to meddle with, and those who are exposed to too much of it become altered….gradually becoming less human to the horror of their neighbours, at which point the changelings are ferried away to secure institutions for their remaining years.

Robert Borrows, from whose viewpoint the story is told, is the son of a low-level guildsman who works in the factory which processes aether mined from deep underground. We learn much about his life and the strange, tightly stratified, static society in which he lives.  He is supposed to follow in his father’s footsteps, as youngsters traditionally do, but he remains an outsider, questioning and sceptical, while being fascinated by Annalise, a girl who does not seem to be quite human. Eventually, he decides to travel from his Yorkshire home to London – just as much the great metropolis as it is in our world, but with the odd pointer to the differences. Hyde Park is an upmarket residential area, the big open space being Westminster Park where the old government buildings used to be, and the South Bank is still undeveloped marshland.

Robert has a colourful young life, rising from the bottom-feeders of society to mixing with the top, but he remains an iconoclast at heart, campaigning for greater equality and hoping to be a part of the end of the present Age and the start of a new one: something that happens about once a century. But the secret about aether which has been increasingly bothering him lies back in his home town, where he finds that nothing is quite as he thought.

The House of Storms is the sequel (published 2005), set in the same world but a century or more later, so does not feature the same characters, although a couple get a brief mention as historical figures. The structure of the book is different, with several viewpoints being used, and the focus is somewhat narrower; less time is spent on establishing the background and the nature of this strange world, so readers are advised to read The Light Ages first.

The initial viewpoint character is Alice Meynell, a beautiful and highly resourceful woman who has married into wealth and power as the Greatgrandmistress of one of the most powerful guilds. At first we see her in a sympathetic light as she travels across Europe with her teenage son Ralph, trying to find a cure for his consumption, but as the story develops we learn more about her dubious background and the ruthlessness with which she achieved and maintains her position. The pair arrive at Invercombe, a grand house on the south-west coast owned by her guild and close to the legendary home for changelings, Einfell. Invercombe seems to have a character of its own, and Ralph soon makes a full recovery, capped by a relationship with Marion Price, a young shoregirl who makes a living through fishing and hunting for seafood. Between them, they study the wildlife and fossils and begin to form conclusions about the evolution of life.

At this point Part 2 of the story abruptly jumps to several years later, with a different setting and characters; notably Klade, a young changeling living at Einfell. As Klade's history is gradually revealed we see how this integrates with the earlier part of the story, some of whose characters re-emerge. We also learn more about the social tensions, not just between the changelings and normal humans, but also between the Easterners focused on London, and the Westerners (centred on Bristol) who are still profiting from the "bonded persons" trade (i.e. slavery); tensions which lead to conflict.

The third part of the book is concerned with the civil war, and the part played in this by the established characters. It becomes clear that the present Age (the Age of Light), in which the use of aether is supplemented by electricity, is drawing to a close; an event which happens with dramatic suddenness. The stories of the main characters are neatly drawn together in a satisfying conclusion.

The quality of writing in these books is superb, the characterisation excellent, the whole flavour of the books powerfully atmospheric. They are slow-paced, but I found myself deliberately slowing down my normal reading speed in order to absorb the descriptions rather than skim over them.  The plots are entirely original and the course of events unpredictable. This is fantasy of the highest standard, and is warmly recommended.