Saturday, 11 November 2006

Ian R. MacLeod: The House of Storms (2005)

Published by Pocket Books, 2006

The follow-up to the wonderful The Light Ages, The House of Storms revisits the same world a century or so later.

The plot describes the machinations of Guildsmistress Alice Meynell, whose pursuit of personal power at any cost eventually leads to a terrible civil war between the east and west of England. This is not the confrontation between king and parliament which happened in the real world, which is now remote enough that it has been romanticised, but a horrific, draining conflict clearly modelled on the Western Front in the First World War.

One of the typical plots of the fantasy genre - which reflects the appeal it has to the adolescent audience - is the underhand "bad guy" adult being opposed and beaten by young teens. The House of Storms looks as though it might follow this storyline, as the first part of the novel describes a love affair between Alice's son Ralph and one of the maids at the house of the title, Invercombe near Bristol where Ralph travels to recuperate from an illness. However (to return to the point), MacLeod decides to reveal the unlikelihood of the standard plot, as Alice easily defeats their plans to flee to the Fortunate Isles; it is only realistic for experience and duplicity to overcome naivety. This leads straight to the strange second part, much of which is told from the point of view of a new character. He is a boy growing up in Einfell, the sanctuary for those whose humanity has been destroyed by over-exposure to aether, the raw material of magic. This was for me reminiscent of William Faulkner's The Sound and the Fury, though not quite at the level acheived in that classic novel.

While The House of Storms is clearly a cleverly conceived and well written fantasy novel, it is not really as readable as The Light Ages. For this, the easy victory given Alice Meynell already mentioned is partly to blame, for it exposes the insipidity of Ralph and Marion as characters with whom the reader is meant to identity: the other main characters are too ruthless (Alice) or strange (Klade). It invites re-reading, though, and doing so is rewarding. The first time through, though, I found it hard to spend more than five minutes reading the novel without putting it down and taking a break. If you want a cute and fluffy, easy read, then The House of Storms is not for you; but for those who want something deeper, especially those who enjoyed The Light Ages, it is well worth making the effort.

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