Ian MacLeod, The Light Ages (Ace Books, 2003)
In The Light Ages, his second novel, Ian MacLeod spins a fascinating tale of an England familiar and yet so very ... askew. The book's setting is roughly analogous to Victorian England, but the industrial revolution, such as it is, owes its progress to a mysterious, magical substance known as aether. Aether, mined from deep in the earth, is used to power trains, telegraphs, lights and much, much more. Aether's discovery centuries ago led to the violent dismantling of England's monarchy in favour of a highly stratified guild system -- there is naught but ruins to attest to the Houses of Parliament in London, and kings are but a distant memory. The major guilds that arose to rule society are each responsible for some very particular aspect of aether technology -- the Telegraphers Guild, the Distemperers, the Goldsmiths -- and enjoy a considerable measure of prosperity. By contrast, the lower-ranked guilds and non-guildsmen (marts, as they're called) fare less well, sometimes barely surviving.
MacLeod's England is in its Third Industrial Age, some two hundred odd years after the discovery of aether, and while in many ways vastly different from the Victorian England we know -- aether-driven numberbeads track accounting records, whisperbeads remember spells for their wearer -- in some ways it is achingly familiar. This England suffers from bitter class divisiveness, with the upper classes and their ornate social whirl ignoring, at best, the have-nots, who scrabble for a substandard existence in an inhospitable environment. Poverty is pervasive beyond the glittering core of London and the country manor houses. This England is also very insular, uninterested in empire-building; contact with other countries is minimal, seemingly limited to trade in such items as aether cannot provide for, such as tea from Cathay.
And then there are the changelings, an ... unfortunate by-product of over-exposure to aether. Some folk are born that way, what you and I might call faeries, able to pass for human, with effort. Others are born human, and then become twisted, deformed, insane from the aether. These poor souls pay the ultimate price for their fellow countrymen's comfort.
Into this world, in the small Yorkshire aether mining town of Bracebridge, is born MacLeod's protagonist, Robert "Robbie" Borrows, son to a worker in the Third Lower Chapter of the Lesser Toolmakers' Guild. The sprawling novel chronicles most of Robert's life, from his "testing day" at age eight (a ritual where all children are aether-tested to ensure they're human and not changeling) to his later life as a Greatgrandmaster of the Third Age, and the social changes he is both witness to and participant in.
After losing his mother to aether sickness (her transformation is a slow, creeping horror for the boy), Robert flees Bracebridge, the relentless "shoom boom" of its aether engines and the hollow promise of a position in his father's guild. He settles in the slums of London, becoming a part of the revolutionary underclass who dream of a new age, a Third Age when the rich will not profit on their labour. As the years pass, and he grows to adulthood, Robert finds his future inextricably bound to that of a beautiful, enchanting changeling he met as a child -- Annalise, now remade into Anna Winters, a bright light of the upper crust. There is a secret that binds them together, a secret known to a scant handful of powerful Guildsmen, which Robert is determined to find out at any cost. Why did the aether engines stop one day in Bracebridge? And how were Robert and Anna's parents involved?
To find the answer, Robert must return to Bracebridge, this time with Anna in tow. Together they unravel the past and discover its implications for them, and for England's future. And together they use the information they find to bring the Second Age to a close and usher in a Third Age.
MacLeod's writing is simply gorgeous; it's easy to see how he's won World Fantasy Awards for his short fiction. His aether-spun England is vividly real, and his characters fully-realized and sympathetic. Particularly appealing is the juxtaposition of Robert's fairy-tale-driven idealism against Anna's (and her guardian, Mistress Summerton's) stubborn, down-to-earth practicality. My one reservation with the book is with the two climactic scenes, which are a bit difficult to parse without repeated readings. But that is a small quibble indeed when pitted against the marvel that is the rest of the novel.