See also my review of The Light Ages
If MacLeod’s previous novel, The Light Ages, was a powerful re-imagining of the Victorian era – with added magical aether – then follow-up The House of Storms (not really a sequel any more than, say, Hard Times can possibly be called a sequel to Great Expectations) is a similarly re-imagined Edwardian period: more E.M Forster than Charles Dickens. Neither book follows our history in anything more than the roughest sense, at best seeing a kind of rough inevitability in the development and experiences of a British industrial society, howsoever they might be powered. MacLeod has largely dispensed with any real claim to alternative history and is now writing a history of his own, albeit with some familiar geography.
So in a world where the magical substance ‘aether’ is mined from the earth itself and used to bolster everything from architecture to make-up, from drugs to the telegraph, we meet Great-Grandmistress Alice Meynell whose teenage son, Ralph, is desperately ill with TB. Alice has earned her position in society. She is a fighter who has clawed her way up to her present exalted position as the wife of one of the most powerful men in England; she is an elemental, animal force, with no morals to hold her back, and the driving force behind her husband’s guild. And yet she loves her son as one can imagine only a psychopath might, seeing in him her own immortality, and yet taking her love to its logical (to her) but extreme limits. To this end, she brings him to the neglected stately home of Invercombe in the West Country, endlessly searching for a cure for his condition. Invercombe is a strange place: shielded from the world, it has a kind of concealed magic not entirely due to the care lavished by its staff.
Miraculously, Alice’s prayers are answered: Ralph is healed, and he then proceeds to make up for lost time by falling in love with a local servant girl. He spends an idyllic summer at Invercombe loving and studying his beloved science.
Of course, neither affair – head nor heart - can possibly last; class and other, more vested, social interests abrogate both. Flash forward 20-odd years and we find Alice once more at her inevitable work, caring for her son (now Great-Grandmaster of the Telegraphers Guild like his father was before him) by managing and forwarding his Guild with her trademark ruthlessness. Alice engineers her own world’s aether-based equivalent of 9/11, and England collapses into a Great War no less cataclysmic for being civil, rather than between states.
The House of Storms sees MacLeod’s already strong writing taking another notable step forward. It moves far faster and far more fluidly for the most part, sucking the reader in and whisking him along in its wake. The Light Ages, whilst a very fine book, had to rather drag this reader along at times, bogged down in self-indulgent prose and a distended story. While the last quarter of this book suffers somewhat from the same problem, the first three are magnificent. Beautiful, turbid and often very rich, but never stifling, prose flows from the page at a cracking rate of knots, evoking both upstairs and downstairs at Invercombe with a delightful passion. I absolutely believed in this world, despite it being based so much upon literal magic. And most of the credit for this little piece of magic belongs to MacLeod’s characters, the most marginal of whom make us feel their presence. The main characters are intensely rendered; weighted with idiosyncrasies, foibles and internal qualities that serve to bring out all the human stories inherent in the events portrayed, from the most perfect summers to the greatest disasters.
Speaking of disaster, the proofreading standard here is just that: disastrous. Considering that this is a major genre release for Simon & Schuster, and an intelligent and enthralling one too (qualities so often mutually exclusive), I couldn’t believe what a shoddy job had been done.
That aside, though, The House of Storms is a strikingly enjoyable and well-thought-out novel, which has something for absolutely everyone. Its fast-turning pages brim with joy and pain, love and war – in short, with humanity, a bit of everyday magic that shines brightly amongst the rather less common variety. I’m reminded somewhat of Graham Joyce’s recent books – yes, almost that good. MacLeod’s current trajectory seems set to take him into the very top rank of modern British writers.