Aether is industry, industry is magic and the Great Guilds rule the known world.
Raised amid the smokestakes, terraced houses and endless subterranean pounding of the aether engines of the Yorkshire town of Bracebridge, Robert Borrows is nevertheless convinced that life holds a greater destiny than merely working endless shifts for one of the Lesser Guilds. Then, on a day out with his mother to the strange gardens and weirdly encrusted towers of a remote mansion, he encounters a wizened changeling, and the young girl in her charge called Anna, and glimpses a world of wonder, mystery and surprise.
From then on, as he flees to London in the hope of escape and advancement, and explores its wide streets and dark alleys, and all the tiers of society from the lowest to the highest, he comes to realize that he holds the keys to secrets far bigger than even he imagined.
A dazzling melange of Dickens and Peake, flavored with steampunk and magical realism, yet seen through a kaleidoscopically individual gaze, in The Light Ages, double World Fantasy Award winner Ian R MacLeod has created a novel for this and every age.
Praise for The Light Ages:
“MacLeod's descriptive powers are so effective that you can visualize every detail… [He] skillfully incorporates literary influences ranging from William Blake to Dickens to 1984 and the working class novels of the 1950s—and arrives at something original. Magical, visionary and enthralling, The Light Ages is award-winning stuff.” —SFX
“Totally convincing and vividly written, this book invests the dark streets of London with a magic the reader will never forget… a brilliant writer.” —Tim Powers
“A haunting fantasy version of Victorian England… brought to life with compassionate characters and lyrical writing.” —The Denver Post
“The novel's industrial alternative London echoes Dickens in its rich bleakness and M. John Harrison's Viriconium in its inventive Gothic complexity. A gripping page-turner. A hearty read. Rising star Ian R MacLeod offers an original political fable rivaling in ambition and execution the very best of today's new science fantasies.” —Michael Moorcock
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The Light Ages
By Ian R. MacLeod
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2003 Ian R. MacLeod
All rights reserved.
I still see her now.
I see her in the poorest parts of London. Beyond the new iron bridges which bear the trams above the ferries, where the Thames spreads her fingers through tidal mud. I see her in a place beyond even the furthest rookeries of the Easterlies, although you will not find it on any maps. Plagued with flies and dragonlice and the reek of city effluent in summer, greyed with smog and ice in winter, even the foulest factories turn their backs away.
There, beyond the hovels and the wastetips of London, I see my changeling.
I see her when I take the streets that lead away from my fine Northcentral house. I see her when I'm worried or distracted, and when the present seems frail. Past the tall Hyde houses. Past the elegant grandmistresses walking their dogs, which—thin-legged, feathered, flightlessly winged, crested like reptiles or covered in mossy clumps of rainbow fur—scarcely seem to me like dogs at all. Skirting the huge shops of Oxford Road, then the incredible trees of Westminster Great Park where prams and parasols drift like paper boats, down Cheapside where the streets grow smaller and dimmer as the sky also shrinks and dims, hazing the roofs and chimneys as evening falls. Clerkenwell and Houndsfleet. Whitechapel and Ashington. A smell of rubbish here and a smell of dogs—by now ugly and ordinary—and the sound of their barking. Not that shame or poverty could ever be said to lie here, although the contrast with the districts where my journey began is already strong. The people who live in these parts of the Easterlies are still all masters rather than guildless marts: they have the jobs that their guilds have granted them; proper furniture in their rooms.
Eventually, long after Cheapside has become Doxy Street, past where the trams reach Stepney Terminus, the muddy streets heave and the houses stick out like irregular teeth. Here in these far Easterlies, no guildsmen dare live. I peer at these people as they scurry in a landscape which seems concertinaed by giant hands, the women cowled in grubby shawls, the men clouded with beerhouse reek, the children quick and pale and subtly dangerous, wondering if this is when the change into true poverty begins.
It always seems that I choose overcast days, late afternoons, dull, hot summer evenings, midwinter Noshiftdays, for my long wanderings. Or at least that, as I step away from the bright core of the Northcentral life I have been living, is what each of these days subtly becomes. From the best districts, I pass through tiers of London smoke and shadow. I suppose that most guildsmen would give up here, if the wild impulse had ever taken them this far. I suppose, looking up at the faces, ageless and leering, that study my passage through holes in the brickwork, hearing the whispering scurry of children both ahead and behind, that I should begin to feel afraid. But people live here: I once lived here, although that was in a different Age. So I walk on and skirt the high walls of Tidesmeet where I once worked through a happy summer. The scurries of the children quieten. The gargoyle faces no longer peer. Someone dressed as I am dressed, practical and understated in a dark coat, high boots to cope with the mud, yet effortlessly conspicuous in the waxy sheen of wealth, clearly possesses money. But I wouldn't bring it here with me, would I? No—or so I imagine those ghost-grey children whisper as they congregate in alleys. And a grandguildsman, too. The repercussions that would rain down on them from the bastard police make murder and robbery seem pointless. And I must have my reasons for coming this way—or I am mad—and both thoughts will make them uneasy. I carry no swordcane, no nightstick, no obvious weapon, not even an umbrella against the rain which always seems to threaten on these overcast days, but to ambush me in that space ahead where the houses press their brows together—who knows what strange guildsman's spells I might be carrying?
Lost also in thought, lost but mostly certain, I wander unmolested through these stinking streets. There are better ways to circumnavigate the far Easterlies and reach the wastetips, although I feel that I need to acknowledge my debt to the place. There are taxi boats and smaller ferries along the main river quays at the embankment and Riverside, which will, on discreet payment of an excessive sum, bear you this way. But the trade they carry is mostly male and drunk, and flounders at midnight from the steps of clubs and guildhalls to sniff the coalsmoke air and dismiss thoughts of home and waiting wives, or even the brothels and dreamhouses, in favour of a different end to the day. Down, then, to the dank sweep of the Thames, where, black-caped and top-hatted, the grandmasters bargain and bluster before they clamber aboard the slopping ferries like tipsy bats. The cough of a motor, the touch of a haft, the whisper of a sail, then away.
It seems to me that all places of poverty are endowed with a sense of waiting, but that is especially the case here, where the houses grow yet flimsier and cease, at some indefinable point like the shifting of a dream, to be houses at all, but shanty hovels of pillaged brick, cardboard and plaster. They are like the theatre props of a play whose essential meaning, despite everything, still escapes me. And the people who live within them, those guildless people whom we call marts, lie so far down the well of fortune from the bright world I inhabit that it is a surprise when their voices come echoing back at me in choked versions of the English tongue. But here, in the grey lull of this dark daytime, I am suddenly the source of much open attention. The strangest thing is that the children, younger now, unthreatening with stark puppy-dog eyes in the bone-bleached thinness of their faces, come up to offer me money, of all things. It lies there in the thin clasp of their fingers. Endless pennies and pounds and farthings of it. Gleaming.
'Take it, guildmaster. A good penny in return '
'Fine stuff, the best spells,' agrees a slightly older colleague, a girl with hair so mangy that her crown shines thought it, offering from her pigeon hands what looks like a heap of diamonds.
'Last you this whole new Age. Last you a lifetime '
More of them gather around, sensing my hesitation, and the foul air intensifies as their eyes glitter up at me. They are dressed in bits of old curtain, barge tarpaulin, sacks. They sport jaunty grey frills of old shirts like bits of filthy sea-foam. The threat of knives and ambushes I can take, but this simple offer And the money, of course, fades. Even as I take a coin from them to inspect as they watch on, uncomplaining, it feels loose, light, grainy.
I wonder now who it is that actually falls for this trick—and whether the midnight visitors are ever quite so drunk, or so desperate. Not that I don't succumb. I choose the child who has shown the intelligence to form the most valuable-seeming handful, which is not money at all, or jewels, but crumpled guild certificates, bonds and promissory notes, and I snatch at paper which feels like winter fog, and ball it in my fist and throw out in exchange all the coins I can find in my pockets, scattering still more behind me as I hurry on.
The Thames never quite seems to be the river I know where it meets the land here. It lies flat and shining as it surges past the ruined shoreline far beyond the docks; oddly clean, all things considered, yet as black—and seemingly solid—as polished jet. The ferries never venture into these currents, and they hang tiny in the pewter distance of evening. They, and the wyreglowing hills of World's End, belong to another world. By now, the children have faded. What waits ahead of me, distant from everything but this river, is a foul isthmus. Sounds are different here, and the gulls remain oddly silent as they bob and rise. Here, it would be said in a forever unwritten history, edged against the wastetips and outflows, shadowed with cuckoo-plant ivy, scratched against the sky, are the remains of the unfinished railway bridge which attempted to stride across the Thames from Ropewalk Reach in another Age. The bridge still rises from the city's rubbish in a tumbled crown. It fails only where the second span buckles beneath the river, waving its girders like a drowning insect. I move within the shadows of its ribs, clambering over slippery horns of embedded concrete and guild-scrolled bearing-sleeves of greenish brass. Here, rusted and barnacled but still faintly glowing with aethered purpose, is the crest of a maker's plate. And a sea-diver's glove. A pulley wheel. And all the endless filth that the river has washed here; tin cans and shoe soles, eels of rope and condom, speckled mosaics of tile and piping.
I begin to make my way up and along the arch which still plunges out across the river, careful not to catch my cloak between the stanchions. There are curls of mist beneath me now; faint shapes over the quick black water which suggest limbs and faces as they twine and turn amid the abutments. And the bridge itself seems to be growing, beams and girders spinning out around me. But I've been here before, and I know something of the ways in which changelings protect themselves. Although my heart is racing and my hands are slipping, I push on and soon I am squatting on a ruined bridge again, caught between nothing but the land, the river, my own desperate need.
Almost level with me now and close to where the bridge's parapet finally falls away clings an aggregation of dead metal and glass and driftwood. Further off lies all of London; the life, the ferries, the miraculous trees and the fine buildings. I clamber to the platform beyond, then duck along the wire cage of a maintenance gantry through which shards of glass and porcelain have been crammed with an intent that could be either threatening or decorative. All things considered, the air here is surprisingly pleasant. It smells mostly of rust.
The changeling who calls herself Niana dwells in the shadows at the far end of this tunnel, and always seems to be waiting for me inside her tepee-like dwelling. She stirs at my approach, and beckons me from the rags of an old wedding dress.
'Grandmaster ' She studies me in the glow of a bowl of plundered wyrelight as she crouches in the furthest, darkest corner. After all, you have decided to come
Her voice, even as it sounds solely in my head, is light, ordinary, flatly accented.
I flail through damp layers of curtain, clumsily conscious of the feats of creation that have gone into this dwelling, clenched up here amid these dying girders. This tilted boarding against which I'm leaning as I catch my breath was perhaps once a cargo pallet, lashed to the heaving deck of some steamer on the Boreal Seas. And the far wall, peppered with daylight through thousands of rivetholes, was clearly part of the outer plating of a large piece of machinery. Wan daylight mingles with the wyrelight's aetherglow through the clouded eye of an old porthole, along intricate tubes of glass piping of a purpose which—barely privy as I still am to the true mysteries of the guilds—entirely escapes me. I try to imagine the struggles which must unfold on the wastetips when a particularly precious relic is heaved from the sidings by the pitbeasts: the bickering gulls, the seething dragonlice, the scampering children. All because of a broken haft; a sack of soup bones; a twitching sliver of iron; a heaped clatter of old lamps
I shrug and smile at Niana, torn as I always am between wonder, curiosity, pity. There's a long cushion exploding in horsehair near to the space where she crouches. Setting strings of bottletops chiming, I lower myself onto the end that looks more likely to bear me. The iron floor curves away from me, hanging at least thirty feet above the uncurling river. And I'm squatting in a way that people of my rank are never supposed to. Still, I'm glad to be here again. With a changeling, and no matter how often or how rarely you encounter them, there's still always for me that tingling sense that today you will finally witness the unravelling of some lost, exquisite mystery.
Niana gets up now, greyly barefoot as always, and wafts around this den of hers, half child and half hag as she hums to herself and rummages out bits of things from the old teachests. She takes a chess piece, a white rook carved from stained ivory, and lifts it to her lips.
'What do you do when no one's here, Niana?'
Her chuckle cuts like the chirp of an insect. 'How many times, grandmaster, do you people need to ask such a question?'
'Until we get an answer.'
'And what answer is it that you want? Tell me, and I'll give it to you.'
'It's not unrealistic, is it,' I mutter, 'for us both to feel a mutual fascination ?'
'But tell me, grandmaster. What is it that fascinates?' The cotton of the wedding dress sighs like sand as she moves over to me. 'Tell me, so that I can understand. Exactly what is it that you want to know? Any wish you want could be granted, grandmaster,' she says more flirtatiously. Her face is the shadow of a face, cast through glass. Her eyes are blacker than a bird's. 'Surely that's not such a difficult proposition?'
'And not that you'll be making any promises?'
'Of course. Promises are far too definite. You know the rules.' I sigh and blink, wishing that she wouldn't treat me like this, wishing that I could feel her breath on my skin instead of this falling emptiness. Sensing my unease, perhaps even hurt by it, Niana straightens herself and leans back. Just as the priests say, there is pure darkness inside those open nostrils.
'Have you anything for me?'
'I might have, grandmaster. It depends on what you you're prepared to give.'
'Niana, you told me last time—'
'Show a little imagination, grandmaster. You're a wealthy man. What is it that you normally deal in?'
A difficult question. The power of my guild, I suppose. And the strength of my will, the skills of mind and body I have acquired through it. Or perhaps Niana means something more subtle. The influence, which, when you get to a rank such as mine, you unavoidably must wield. I think of summer parties, winter gatherings in the panelled rooms around polished cedarstone tables; the subtle murmur of voices, the clink of cut glass, the deep tidal surges of power and money as one trust is set against the betrayal of another.
'Come, grandmaster. Surely it's the thing about you that is most obvious. It's what draws people to you—'
'—I doubt if you mean my looks—'
'—so why don't we pretend we're both simply human for a moment and make the usual exchange?' Her voice continues over mine. 'Grandmaster, why don't you give me some money?'
I try not to scowl. Niana's like a child. If I gave her coins, all she'd do is add them to her trinkets, use them to buy aether, or taunt me in just the way that she seems to be taunting me now
Kindly forget your preconceptions, grandmaster, she responds, although her lips are barely moving. We're not really trolls, you know—or at least we're not monsters.
I twist myself on the springs of this couch to demonstrate to her that my pockets are empty. But as I do so my fingers close on something chilly. Remembering, lifting it out, I watch it flower, light as fog, on my palm. The cheaply magicked promissory note that that poor girl gave me. The words and the seals sparking, fading.
You see, grandmaster?
Niana blurs into a windless grey gale as she snatches it from me. Then she floats off, holding it to her nose as if it really was a flower, inhaling as I suppose we have all done at some time or another to discover if there really is a smell of wealth, a scent of power, a perfume of money. An odour which is in fact nothing but sweat, smoke, the dullness of liquor; the same staleness you'll find lingering on your clothes after attending a ball at the grandest of mansions.
Niana absorbs whatever is left of the paper flower's fading substance. And it's growing duller in here now; the afternoon is fading, and so is Niana. The brass bowl of aether strengthens in response, throwing out more of its characteristic wyrelight as she wafts amid hanging tins and bottles and curtains. But I fear that this is still all just a refinement of whatever joke that she's playing, and worry, as I notice that the immodest rents and tears across that ancient wedding dress give glimpses of black nothing, that she'll simply keep me waiting here forever.
Excerpted from The Light Ages by Ian R. MacLeod. Copyright © 2003 Ian R. MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Others are reviewing this book as Dickensian. I find that wrong as Dickens writing style is different to me. I get caught up in Dickens with the minutiae of characterization. He will go on for pages about one minor character who are all linked, like Paul Haggis's movie Crash, at the end.MacLeod I feel is being compared unfairly to Dickens because there are similarities with our protagonist, Robbie going to a old decrepit house, like Pip in Great Expectations. Of a London that has a seedy side that Dickens was able to relate through much of his work.That is where the similarities end for me. The Light Ages is a novel with a Steampunk feel as we have a Victorian Era world of technology run on an energy form that is magical. Robbie, telling in first person, which I feel brings the book down and lengthens it too long, is intimately wrapped up in the procurement of this component. A mystery and great political upheaval surrounds this.It starts slowly, and does not grab you right away. It shows you a world that you can well imagine, How Green Was My Valley, the story of the lives of the Welsh Coal Miners comes to mind. An ordinary story is made fantastical, but it is made much better through the writer's prose. MacLeod is rich in language and he shares it with you. Since Robbie is the person relating the story to us though, the prose is to rich for the character and there is why the book is too long, and could be better. But without the prose it would be a lesser presentation. Thus we come to it that our story just does not fit the writing.
The setting for this novel is an England where magic is mined from the ground. The country runs on ¿aether¿ a substance that is magic made real. With the right spells you can do anything with it. It is used in communications, construction, machines and clothing. There is a price to pay for this marvelous substance, if exposed for too long a person will physically change into something less human and more magical. These creatures are call ¿trolls¿ or ¿changelings¿ and are taken away to asylums or are left to wander the streets. The story is narrated by Robert Borrows. He begins his life in a small town where aether is mined. Aether is the cause of much tragedy for him and his family. As a young man he hops a train for London where he learns of the gulf between the rich and the poor in this booming city. The guilds control the aether, money and people but a new age is coming with the hope of a better way of life for all. The story is written in the style of Dickens with many unusual characters coming and going through Robert¿s life. The setting is a London where the poor struggle to survive and the rich dance at elaborate balls and eat and drink while the poor starve. At the beginning of the novel we meet an old and wise changeling names Missy who raises Anna, the woman that Robert loves. These characters remind me of Miss Havisham and Estella from ¿Great Expectations.¿The book doesn¿t grab you at the beginning; in fact it doesn¿t really take off until you are about half way through. It also is not a happy uplifting novel. There is much injustice in this book that is not resolved in the end, but such is the world.
"The Light Ages" is a beautifully written book. MacLeod knows how to use language, both English and the invented words of his story, to create a vivid atmosphere of an alternate reality. This other world is a steam-punk futuristic Victorian England, where the people live in a caste society, revolution is in the air, and a magical substance called aether makes the world go around. For his writing style and atmosphere, I would give the book four stars at least. But alas, for the story I would give it two stars at best (hence my settling on three.) I had two issues with the story. One, there were no characters in the book that I could relate to, or that I really cared about. There isn't a lot to propel me through a book when I don't care about any of the characters. Second, I found the plot unnecessarily convoluted. To be fair, since I didn't care about the characters, my mind tended to wander while reading sometimes, so perhaps I missed important points, but it felt overly complex to me.
I love the writing, i.e. use of language, in 'The Light Ages', but the plot didn't seem to go anywhere. I regret to say I got half-way through and decided it wasn't interesting enough to finish.The book puts forth an interesting idea - that if mankind has too much given to them, there is no push for discovery and so scientific development remains entirely stagnant. In this book, all things we would think of as "engineered" run from aether, a form of substance imbued with a property man can utilize to make any contraption run far better than it should. It is treated in the book as a natural resource, mined from the ground, refined, and sold at tremendous price. But because it is available, there is no effort put into science and engineering. Man has not even learned to use electricity for light! The author spends time developing the idea that magic would shackle scientific endeavors, and that portion of the story is quite interesting; but then he goes on to tell about the protagonist at an older age, and the plot becomes vague and drags on far too long without the protagonist having any goal to achieve. There is a muddy romantic side to the plot, but it is more like a young lad being rebuffed repeatedly than something that might lead to a satisfying conclusion. There is simply too little movement in the plot through the middle of the book, and so as fine as the use of language is, I ultimately don't recommend it. A good book has to be much more than polished use of English. If The Light Ages is the only book you have to read it's probably good enough to go through, but I found it better to move on to something more interesting.
Is this steampunk? In an alternate Britain, where mystical aether mined from the ground powers society, a young boy grows up in a mining town. Aether warps the bodies and minds of those who get too close to it, and the boy loses his mother to a hideous transformation that is somehow connected to a strange young girl he meets. He grows up, goes to London, and gets involved in a social justice movement with concerns similar to those in our own world, though the persistence of guilds (empowered by secrets of working with aether, which responds to certain signs and words) makes the social stratification different than that in industrialized Victorian Britain. There were some striking images of magic intertwined with crude technology in urban settings, but I couldn¿t work up any sympathy for the characters.
In the England where Robert Borrows lives, there is no parliament or monarchy only the guilds who are the aristocracy. English civilization is based on the element aether, which is mined deep below ground in such places as Bracebridge in West Yorkshire. Without the use of aether, structures, buildings and bridges would crumble and life would be infinitely harder. Too much exposure to aether alters humans into changelings who are taken away to certain institutions where they can be cared for even if they are able to live a normal life....................... Instead of joining his father's Toolmaker's Guild as he is supposed to, Robert travels to London where he learns the difference between the haves and the have-nots. He joins an organization whose goal is to overthrow the existing order, a Herculean feat since the guildmakers are so entrenched. While in London, he meets Anna, a changeling passing herself off as human, who is linked to Robert and Bracebridge in a very special way. When they discover the secrets that Bracebridge is hiding, they will usher in a new age, one that will change the world as they know it............................ THE LIGHT AGE is a gothic fantasy that takes place in an England reminiscent of this world's early age. The underpinning of magic to hold society and civilization together means maintaining the status quo, something the protagonist is totally against because no progress is made towards discovering new knowledge. Nothing in his England has changed for three centuries since the discovery of aether. Ian R. MacLeod has written a fascinating work that brings something unique and refreshing to the genre........................ Harriet Klausner