Ian R. MacLeod,
The Light Ages
(Ace, 2003)

Ian R. MacLeod is most definitely a talented writer capable of making his words dance across the written page, but I have to admit I found The Light Ages a slow, sometimes frustrating read. The actual events and experiences driving the story are disjointed, and while the highly literate prose ebbs and flows at times like a beauty of nature, it proves incapable of assembling the whole into something completely intelligible.

This is fantasy of a high order that many readers will surely enjoy more than I did, and any question of MacLeod's talent can be easily swept aside by noting the World Fantasy Award he won for his novella The Summer Isles. As this is MacLeod's first novel, though, I personally cannot help but wonder if he tried too hard to reach a lofty pinnacle of success. The words, as beautiful and carefully crafted as they are, just seem to get in the way of the story at times.

The primary backdrop of The Light Ages is a future London wherein a Dickensian sort of social order has prevailed for a full three centuries, fueled by the discovery of aether, a magical substance mined from the earth. Industrialization failed to progress, to a large degree, because aether and the spells guarded zealously by the guilds could magically make inferior items, including those making up the industrial infrastructure of society, perfectly workable. Thus, industry stagnated, and society, through the course of three century-long Ages, likewise stagnated into a tightly compartmentalized world of guilds. Social mobility was all but unheard of.

A few individuals, though, seemed to possess magic inside themselves, and these creatures were rooted out and ostracized as trolls (i.e., changelings). Robert Barrows is born into this world, growing up in Bracebridge, the most important aether-mining town in England. One special day during his childhood, his mother takes him to a home outside of town, where he meets an extraordinary young girl named Annalise; soon thereafter his mother begins to change horribly. With her demise, he chooses to flee this world and seek his destiny in London. It is here that he becomes a social revolutionary, working to usher in the light of a brand new Age, one in which society is not stratified by wealth, status or birth. Oddly enough, he also sometimes walks in the world of the guildmasters, the very persons he is trying to overthrow, and it is here that he meets Annalise again.

The rest of the novel is a meandering tale of discovery and loss, mixing in a remarkable cast of characters, as Robert strives to discover a world-changing secret that unites him and Annalise in the most fundamental, albeit mysterious, of ways.

One problem I have with the book is the fact that some of the most important events and transitions take place between sections. We see Robert hop a train to escape to London, and the next thing we know he is working for a socialist newspaper five years later. Since MacLeod's main emphasis in this novel seems to be a careful critique of man and society, Robert's transformation would seem to have offered the author a perfect means of pursuing his loftier goals for the story. There were moments when MacLeod succeeded in demonstrating the common humanity of the wealthy guildmen and unguilded marts such as Robert, yet no individual's real self seemed to emerge from these pages. The motivations of different characters at different times were difficult to understand, and the whole point of the novel is, in one sense, seemingly challenged by the ending. The Light Ages is not a cheerful, inspirational story, but I don't think it tries to be; personally, I'm not entirely sure what the novel was intended to be, and that is the source of my own dissatisfaction of sorts with what could have potentially been a truly insightful, deeply challenging novel.

- Rambles
written by Daniel Jolley
published 9 August 2003

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