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When greatgrandmistress Alice Meynell brought her son to Invercombe, she fully believed she was taking him to die there. Not that she had given up hope—hope was something she still clung to resolutely—but through the years of Ralph's illness she had discovered shades of meaning within simple words which, previously, she had scarcely known to exist.
She gazed from the car as it rumbled out of Bristol. It was a cold, grey morning, still cornered with night, and Ralph was shivering under his blankets, his breath as blue as his lips. That overnight train from London, and now they were being driven in this outwardly fine but actually quite freezing vehicle around the backs of yards which gave tawdry glimpses of a city which Alice had always felt to be more alien than many a far-flung reach of the Continent. The trams here went humming on high cradles which pressed their tips together over the streets like praying hands. And the buildings! Festoons of coralstone which the master builders grew and mutated, and which reminded her of dough creatures shaped out of flour and water. Everything twisted and curved and looking as if it was still growing, and in pinks and blues, like an explosion in a nursery. It was all so different from Northcentral's orderly grid. Slowly, in the better districts towards the dam at Clifton, the fantastic houses were coming to life, and servants were hurrying along the pavements to their day's work as the street-lamps blinked out. Then, in that quick way which could never happen in London, they were in open countryside.
Ralph's first sight of Bristol, and already it was gone. Even though the city would be within reach from where they were heading, Alice wondered, as she often found herself doing whenever they saw any new sight, whether her son would ever see it again. She gave an inward shudder. The clock, fevered and quick as his pulse, was always ticking. London, then Bristol, and now this tumbling landscape which the dawn had yet to touch as the lights of the car shone on bare hedgerows.
Before this, before that. Baden and then Paris. That place in the mountains. And doctors' surgeries. The glow of their vials. The glint of their glasses. Whispered, useless spells. The months and the shifterms sometimes condensed in her imagination to that one single protracted moment from a summer's afternoon back in London up on the Kite Hills—Butterfly Day, it had been, and she'd never felt the same about that particular holiday since—when Ralph had run up to her and he'd started coughing and she'd glimpsed flecks of blood amid the spittle in his palm. From there to now was like an endless fleeing, and the times they'd spent in so many admittedly pretty and interesting places seemed like nothing but pauses to catch their breath before they started running again. Even a healthy child would have been wearied, just as she felt wearied herself. And all to find that words like hope could be sliced into endless shades of nuance and grow so thin that eventually you could see right through them. But now, as they turned out from a valley and the rising sun suddenly poured from banks of grey cloud and twirled though the patches of mist, they were heading for Invercombe, and there they would make their last stand.
Ralph's breathing was more regular now. The sun was in his face, and Alice saw with a pang that this new day's light was glinting on the thickening down which was now covering his cheeks. Even though his illness had prevented him from living an ordinary childhood, Ralph was already becoming a man.
Sensing some change in her gaze, he turned towards her. There was a line of sweat across his upper lip.
'Is it a long drive?'
'I don't know, my darling. I've never been there.'
'What's it called again?'
He nodded and looked again out of the window. A ghost of his breath pulsed across the glass from his lips. 'So this is the west.'
Alice smiled and took her son's hand, feeling heat and lightness. Now that the sun was properly risen, she was remembering just how pretty this western landscape could be, even on a late winter's morning. The way the hills never ceased unrolling. The sense that the next turn would reveal the sea. But she scarcely knew the west herself. Little more than honey-stoned towns in which she'd spent worthless half-afternoons in her younger, more difficult, days, sitting on a suitcase as she waited for a change of trains. But still, Ralph seemed happy as he looked out at the road angled down beside the huge estuary and the far hills of Wales. London, even the few days they'd spent there, and with its dense fogs and all the endless comings and goings, was unthinkable. Yes, for all the reasons she'd rehearsed, and for the odd, increasing sense that it had been calling to her in some vague yet significant way, Invercombe felt right.
'You really have no idea what it'll be like?' Ralph murmured.
'No. But ...'
Ralph turned back to her, and together they chanted the phrase which they always did when they arrived at somewhere new.
'We'll soon find out ...'
Trees parted. There were tall outer walls, a small gatehouse, a long estate road with a glimpse of some kind of castle or ruin across the parkland on the right, and then the land was rising through perilinden and evergreen plantation towards a stumpy lighthouse. No, that would be the weathertop.
Invercombe, Alice knew from her researches, had been here a long time. The Romans had possibly fortified this seaward command of the Severn Estuary, and there had certainly been a small castle here before it was sacked by Cromwell's armies. Then had come the years when the English landscape erupted once more into bloodshed after a lonely and obsessive man named Joshua Wagstaffe extracted a hitherto-unheard-of substance from the rocks he had spent a lifetime collecting. He named it aether after the fifth form of matter which Plato had surmised, and dowsing for it soon became the obsession of the Age. Aether persuaded corn to grow into bushel-sized heads on land which had furnished little but chaff. Aether made frozen axles turn. Aether bent the very fabric of the world. Aether, above all, was power, and the trade guilds understood that better than anyone, and, in their battles with the king and the church, took it as their own.
After the bloodshed of the co-called Wars of Unification, as the first of the Ages of Industry began, Invercombe was rebuilt, no longer as a castle, but, infused with new wealth and the abilities of aether, as a fine house on this precarious promontory; a veritable jewel of stone. A family by the name of Muscoates lived there for generations until their power waned and it was finally made part of a bankruptcy settlement, and drifted like so many things into the ownership of the Great Guilds. It became just one of many investments and holdings which were passed forgetfully from will to will, marriage to marriage, until it reached the hands of the Guild of Telegraphers towards the end of the Third Age, although it was doubtful if any of its greatgrandmasters ever visited the place. Still, the place meandered on, and a use was found for it as a base for the development of a technology which was to become the wonder and wellspring of this current Age. The old water race was cleared, and a generator, new in itself, was built to feed Invercombe with electricity. A reckoning engine, also advanced for its time, was then installed, and a small but functional transmission house was constructed on the boundaries of the estate. From this early work, a new kind of electric telegraph, through which it was no longer necessary for skilled telegraphers to commune mind to mind, but through which ordinary guilds-people, at least if they were rich enough, could simply talk to each other as if they were face to face, was developed. It became known as the telephone, and by this great invention, the entire world was changed. But, and once again, Invercombe retreated from fame and from memory. It drifted, its halls abandoned in the chaos of the end of the last Age of Industry, until it was granted in a life lease to a certain Greatmaster Ademus Isumbard Porrett.
Invercombe by then was half-ruined and seriously undermined by the swell of the sea at the cliffs beneath its foundations, but Greatmaster Porrett threw himself wholeheartedly into its repair. There were century-old records which Alice had studied recording how Invercombe's roof was remade, its generators repaired, and the re-establishing of its terraces, and of many gardens newly landscaped. Greatmaster Porrett even shaped an ugly transmission house into the battlements of a folly-castle so as not to spoil the view. All, to Alice's mind, a strange amount of effort to put in as a mere life tenant, but Porrett's most extraordinary improvement was a weathertop, the brassy dome of which she could now see placed like a squat lighthouse atop a brick tower on the south side of the hill above the water race. On the decks of sail-bearing craft, master mariners employed such devices to make the best of the winds, but the idea of a landlocked device to control the climate of an entire valley struck her as ambitious in the extreme.
The car swished to a halt on a semi-circular sweep of mossy gravel. With the quick eye of one who has long grown used to new arrivals, Alice appraised the tall windows and chimneys, the elegant gables, the stone-chased intricacies of glass. The house was even prettier than she'd imagined.
Signalling the driver to wait and glancing at her wrist-watch—it was quarter to eight—she strode up to the front door and pulled the bell-chain. She'd sent word a shifterm or so ago that she and Ralph were coming, but, as was her usual practice, she'd hadn't mentioned the exact time and date. Normally at this point the shocked face of some half-dressed maid would poke around the door. In the years since she had married Great-grandmaster Tom Meynell, she had made it one of her many small personal crusades to ensure that all the properties their guild owned were properly maintained. That, indeed, was why Invercombe had first come to her attention. A relatively small estate, but the rows of figures beside it had indicated that it was sucking in money. It was that landlocked weathertop, which, it was explained to her, was too powerful to be fully decommissioned without ruinous expense. For whatever reason, for that odd device, or for a situation which seemed to guard the Bristol Channel, or for the sense of a story which she didn't fully know, Alice had decided against condemning the place. And now she was standing at its door and Ralph was getting cold in the car and nothing was happening as the weathertop's greenish-gold dome glowed through the bare trees. She sighed and kneaded a twitch beneath her right eye. She was about to pull the bellchain again when she heard, or rather, sensed, a presence behind her. Slowly, she turned, fully expecting to find nothing but the illusions of her own tiredness. But a large Negro woman stood there.
'Welcome to Invercombe, greatgrandmistress,' she said, and made a curtsey. 'I'm Cissy Dunning, steward of this house ...'CHAPTER 2
The first priority, always, was Ralph. She found him the best and the airiest room, fitted with barely used but century-old furniture and fine, sound-looking wood panelling. Even to Alice's eyes, the green and gold four-poster bed's huge mattress looked reasonably hygienic, and there were French windows to a southwest balcony with no appreciable draughts overlooking the fine gardens, and a decent fire already crackling in the grate.
She found a comfortable couch and had it shifted into Ralph's room as somewhere for her to rest and, if need be, spend the nights. Everything had to be checked, moved, aired, settled, sorted, explained, organised. Not just hours of it, but days. But the steward seemed capable and was difficult to fluster, even if she was female and a Negro, and her staff seemed to know their work, although there was no detectable sign of any change to the frigid weather engendered by that weathertop. And those accents. Little aspects of their manner and clothing, and the odd, faint taste to the water, which was strangely pleasant, and even seemed to enhance the flavour of her tea. Nothing was quite the same here, and Alice almost hoped to find some severe flaw in Invercombe's outward efficiency so that she could impose herself more easily on the people who ran it.
'Well? What do you think?'
She was sitting on the side of Ralph's bed. It was mid-morning, Eightshiftday, the fourth day since their arrival, and the fire was gently sparkling. All the ordinary and necessary events which she had stipulated had seemingly taken place, and she was in the odd situation of finding that there was little that she needed to attend to. Outside, although they got the best of the light here, it was yet another grey day.
Ralph smiled. He was sitting up, almost fully dressed, and he'd slept through his third good night. 'I like it here. I like the feel of the air. When will you let me explore?'
'Soon enough.' Exulted, she gave his hand a squeeze. 'But we mustn't rush. Only two shifterms ago ...' That damn London air. Ralph muttering that his bones were burning. Even now, some of that weakness was still lingering. She leaned over and kissed his cheek, feeling the give of that new down. She smiled and sat back from him. 'I'll get you your books.'
Although many of the things she'd initially asked to be posted on from London had arrived, the textbooks through which she'd overseen Ralph's education hadn't. But long-dead Greatmaster Porrett had seemed to anticipate Ralph's needs in the surprisingly well-stocked library. The books were old, but, breaking open their pristine spines, Alice had concluded that little of importance had been added to the sum of human knowledge throughout this Age. Studying the fine, hand-coloured prints of flowers, both natural and aether-engineered, with their detailed Latin descriptions, and the avalanching pictures of rocks, would stand Ralph in good stead when he began the proper work of his induction into the Telegraphers, although Alice had never understood this male need to catalogue.
'Why are you smiling like that?' he asked.
Planning ahead. Thinking when instead of if. 'I'm just happy that you're happy.'
He studied her suspiciously. 'As long,' there was an up-down quaver in his voice, 'as you're happy as well.'
'Of course I am.' The local doctor, a character named Foot, had already called on her with his busy little wife, and so had the Reverend-Higher-master Humphry Brown, the parish priest. Of course, she'd go to church on Noshiftday morning just like any other respectable guildsmistress, but over the years she'd heard the chant of too many prayers and spells. She understood the stages the mothers of consumptives went through. The frantic agony of first discovery was followed by willingness to go anywhere, to do anything. It was often years before the guilty realisation finally came that you were simply making your child suffer more. Yes, consumption sometimes faded, but the only known way of alleviating it was rest and fresh air. Yet still you travelled and still you worried and still you paid in relentless pursuit of the finest kind of air, the purest form of rest. Your child's crises and remissions became the star by which your entire life was navigated. In many cases, as Alice had seen in spa towns and sanatoriums across half of Europe, this pursuit lasted until the child's death, or the mother's infection with the same disease. But the impulse to come to Invercombe had been clear and irrevocable. She felt none of the usual doubts.
She plumped up an extra cushion to support a book on botany and left Ralph to his reading. In the corridor, she checked her watch. Already close to noon. Back in London, her husband Tom would be heading for lunch at his club. In that dense fug, which was like the London air outdoors but ten times multiplied, over red wine and snooker and endless courses of stodge, listening to the same lame jokes and smiling at the same weary faces in their high-backed chairs, much of the real work of the Great Guilds was done. She decided that she would telephone him there before he ate. But first she must make herself presentable.
Excerpted from The House of Storms by Ian R. MacLeod. Copyright © 2005 Ian R. MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 9, 2008
On an alternate earth, the fifth form of matter, aether is discovered. This element is used in magic spells to run machinery and electricity and just about anything else one can think of. The guilds control the supply of aether and no one is more powerful than Alice Meynell, the Greatgrandmistress of the Telegrapher¿s Guild. Her only son Ralph is dying and she takes him to Invercombe on the west coast of England in the hopes that exercise and clear air will cure his consumption.--- While there she visits Einfell where people are no longer human because they were changed by the overuse of magic. When she returns, her son Ralph is cured so she leaves him at Invercombe while she returns to London to set in motion plans that will give more power to her and her son. The result of her scheming leads to a civil war that will affect the lives of everyone living in Victorian England.--- This is a thick and juicy alternate history novel that is set in a Victorian England where everyone is dependant on magic like oil is in our world. Alice does what she must to get and keep her position no matter who she hurts. Her only weakness is her son who turns out to be under his mother¿s thumb when he takes over the position of Greatguildmaster once held by his dead father. Ian R. Macleod continues to fascinate readers with his special blending of sorcery and alternate history.--- Harriet KlausnerWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 16, 2009
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Posted January 1, 2010
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