See also my review of The House of Storms
Imagine, if you will, a vision of Victorian-era England without Victoria; a smoky, hard and often cruel land ruled by guilds divided minutely according to industry and craft. Imagine a people further divided along hair-thin class lines, again according to industry and craft. Imagine an England where magic is literally mined out of the ground as 'aether', a miraculous resource upon which the entire country has become dependent since it has all but removed the need for 'scientific' progress. After all, in such a world why bother even trying to do things the hard, rational way when a simple application of magic renders, say, even the shoddiest ironwork brighter and stronger than steel?
Welcome to The Light Ages.
Robert Borrows is born of a poor mother and father into the twilight 'Third Age' of such a land, into the narrow coldness of the northern aether-mining town of Bracebridge. Everyone knows their place in Bracebridge; who to look up to and who to gaze down upon. And all look down (if they look at all) upon the changelings: poor unfortunates mutated by unwanted exposure to the ubiquitous aether, mercilessly hounded and imprisoned by the omnipresent guilds. Bracebridge seems far removed from the glorious riches of England: despite being so rich in raw aether, the precious substance is shipped elsewhere to work its manifold glamours. The luxury and ease aether affords others is not for the miners and families of Bracebridge.
And so, as young boys in such stories are always wont to do, Robbie grows up and runs away, to seek his fortune in London where the streets are paved with a sheen of brilliant aether. Here learns a great deal and sees things he'd never even dreamt of, but he also finds that Bracebridge is perhaps more central to England than he had ever imagined.
Does this sound overly mysterious? Do you want to know more before you commit to buying and reading The Light Ages? Sad to say you'll get no more from me, my friends. No further account of the story can do it justice here without giving away far more than you'd thank me for. MacLeod's prose is a marvel, though – bustling and odoriferous, grubby and greasy; a very tactile style that flawlessly evokes diverse settings, from a very young Robert's awareness of Bracebridge to the older lad's first visions of London. And this is not a story that gives itself up too easily, as with all the best stories the devil is in the detail.
And what detail there is! Politics, class war, love, revolution, growing up and dysfunctional families – all are carefully mixed with the basic premise of aether to create a richly fulfilling, thoughtful work that is both emotional and physical: everything you could want a book to be. So many authors might have been pleased enough to come up with aether alone, but MacLeod has thought long and hard about it and placed his magical industrial revolution in a very real, gritty milieu that's totally believable. Fascinating as the concept may be, it's enveloped within the folds of shifting and turning human relationships that make up the bulk of The Light Ages.
As other wiser heads have noticed before me, The Light Ages is a stunning work of fiction, so much so that one half expects it itself to glow with a charge of marvellous aether. Ian R. MacLeod's depiction of an alternate past shot through with revolution and wonder, despair and passion, squalor and glory, all in equal measures, is a modern Dickensian nightmare, a near-masterpiece of the genre. Mr MacLeod may well be set to give Miéville a run for his money.