Bewildering Stories

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Ian McLeod's The Light Ages

reviewed by Jerry Wright

The Light Ages Cover
Title: "The Light Ages"
Author: Ian McLeod
Ace/Penguin Putnam
ISBN: 044101055
456 pages

First a note to mention that I finished my review of the two Walter Mosley books in last week's issue, so if you wish, you may go there, but come right back...

Okay, now for this week's effort...

I was born Robert Borrows in Bracebridge, Brownheath, West Yorkshire late one August Sixshiftday afternoon in the seventy-sixth year of the third great cycle of our Ages of Industry, the only son and second child of a lower master of the Lesser Guild of Toolmakers.
This creation owes much to Charles Dickens. It also owes much to Mervyn Peake at least in a Gormenghastish way, but the writing is all McLeod. This is a sumptuous book, with a wonderful use of language. If you want a whiz-bang adventure story, well, sorry. This one won't do.

Robbie Brown was born in what we might think of as 1876 in England. But not our England. Note the day of the week he was born; Sixshiftday. As you read on, you find that the "Guilds" have done away with the old 6 days of work and one of rest. Now men work 12 days, Firstshiftday through Twelfthshiftday, and wonder of wonders, get Halfshiftday and then Noshiftday. Aren't the mighty Guilds kind?

Bracebridge is a mining town in West Yorkshire that mines a rare commodity. Aether. The magic of the world, the Magick of Faery, has been extracted, and converted to a wondrous liquid which with the proper spells can build castles in the air and allow shoddy workmanship to become usable, and even valuable, and create unicorns, dragons, pitbeasts. As in the extraction and refinement of radioactive material, aether is dangerous, and Robert's mother is contaminated a number of years before our story starts when Robbie is seven. She turns into a troll and is taken away.

The story moves through the stages of Robbie's life, first as a child when he meets Annalise, the changeling girl who is the center of his life while swirling through his periphery, his move to London, falling in with a thief who is also a political activist desirous of bringing down the Guilds, his political activism, and his "illegal entry" into the Guilds. In a sense, I am minded of Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein, from the standpoint of the characterization of the Guilds.

Robert begins to see the Guilds as the source of evil, pollution and corruption in 19th century England, but McLeod's characters are finely drawn, and even the "highest source of evil" is simply a man caught up in his time. The massive disparity of wealth between the Guildmasters and the "marks", who live in filth and poverty is well delineated, and all the characters live, and breathe.

But in the end, it is the flow, the quality of writing, that draws the reader through the book, and causes this book to stay on the bookshelf, to be read and savored again.

Copyright © 2003 by Jerry Wright