Friday, 16 April 2004

Ian R. MacLeod: The Light Ages (2003)

Edition: Earthlight, 2003
Review number: 1231

The small number of books that I would consider my favourite serious fantasy novels (E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses, Michael Moorcock's Dancers at the End of Time series, Jack Vance's Lyonesse, John Crowley's Little, Big) share one important quality - atmosphere. There are other novels with similar power that I don't actually like very much, notably China MiƩville's Perdido Street Station, and at least one series that I suspect would join the list if I got round to reading it, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Now The Light Ages has to join the list; it will surely also establish itself as one of the classics of the genre.

The setting of The Light Ages is an alternative industrial England, a place where the essence of magic, a mineral named aether, is mined alongside iron and coal. It is the story of a man born in a Yorkshire town which is a centre of aether mining, and how he travels to London and becomes part of a train of events which threaten the power of the Guildsmen who are the magnates of the Age, the Third Age of Industry that many think is coming to its end.

This background is itself enough to make The Light Ages stand out as an original fantasy novel. Alternate histories are almost always fit better into the science fiction genre than fantasy, with a special version of the "What if..." question that is the core of the genre. It is almost commonplace to ask questions like "What might have happened if Nazi Germany and Japan had wone the Second World War?" (Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle) or "What might England be like if the Reformation had never happened?" (Keith Roberts' Pavane). But almost always these are straight extrapolations from the science and technology of the time, without the extra magical dimension used here. Where magic is interpolated into the real world, or a background as clearly related to the real world, it tends to be at the fringes, "beyond the fields we know" or in an unseen world underpinning the everyday, as in Neil Gaiman's novels. The Light Ages is pretty much unique as an alternate history which seriously looks at how things might be different if magic is real. (The only novel I can think of comparable in terms of the use of magic in an alternative reality is The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - a children's classic in the genre.) The Light Ages is also one of only a small number of fantasy novels in which magic is an industrial raw material used in processes which produce pollution. (Saruman's industrialisation in The Lord of the Rings is easily the best known example, though there and in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant it is the misuse of magic which pollutes. Holly Lisle has also set her novels in a world contaminated by fallout from an ancient war between wizards.)

The England portrayed in The Light Ages is very much the polluted, industrial and worker-exploiting England of the Victorian era, Dickensian in inspiration though MacLeod is able to be more explicit in his depiction of squalor than Dickens ever did. While the quality of his evocation in places approaches Dickens, its attention to the industrial poor and radical politics is more akin to the writing of Elizabeth Gaskell. This fantasy novel is one of the best ever written, and any reader of the genre would be well advised to pick it up. They may find that it's too slow for their tastes, but I just found it magical.

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