Review Summary: Slow moving tale set in an alternate, ‘Industrial Age’ England, where magic has replaced technology.
Brief Synopsis: The story of Robert Borrow’s life, set against the last years of the Third Age. Robert is connected to various people and events which conspire to bring about the dawning of a new Age. The revelations of these connections play out over the course of the novel, and of Borrow’s life.
Pros: Richly imagined world. The scenes of people’s everyday lives and the cities in which they live give a nice depth to the story. The characters are fairly sympathetic, but interesting, and are enough to keep you going for more.
Cons: The book drags a bit everywhere. Things happen very slowly and major events happen offstage.
Robert Borrow’s lives in Bracebridge, a major source of magical energy, known as ‘aether’. Aether has taken the place of oil, coal, and other resources as the primary source of energy for the world. It allows people to use magic to build and maintain things. Unfortunately, this has lead to laziness as magic allows people to build and do things that would otherwise have required a lot of thought and engineering.In an effort control the aether, England has become a caste society, with people being either in a guild or not (marts). Bracebridge is a typical company town and Robert’s father is a member of the minor Toolmakers Guild. It is expected that Robert will one day follow in his father’s footsteps.
The first part of the book is about Robert and his early life in Bracebridge. His mother takes Robert to another town to meet a friend of hers, Missy, and Missy’s charge Anna. Missy, as it turns out, is a changeling, someone who has been affected by the aether and is no longer completely human. Changelings can have various powers, and Missy’s is the ability to read minds. Anna looks normal, but is also a changeling. Her power is more subtle, yet more powerful than Missy’s. Robert is mystified why his mother brought him to see Missy and Anna, and so are we. Shortly thereafter, Robert’s mother begins to transform into a changeling and eventually dies. This event is the catalyst for sending Robert to London searching for answers. Why did his mother become sick and die? What is the connection between his mom, Missy and Anna? What is really going on in the factory at Bracebridge? The answers are slow in coming, but lead inexorably to the start of a new age.
MacLeod does a great job in bring this alternate England to life. The prose was almost Dickensian in its ability describe the lives and environs of England and especially London. I felt like Dickens might have written something like this if he were in to SF. Obligatory CYA: I’ve read a few Dickens novels, all forced upon me by the English powers that be in High School. This is my impression only and not a scholary critique. MacLeod goes to great lengths to describe the people and society of this England. So much so that, many times, the narrative slows down as MacLeod goes into loving detail about the people and locations where the ‘action’ is taking place. I wondered many times whether MacLeod had entered the “Summarize Proust” contest, you Monty Python fans will get that one. MacLeod takes a long time to start answering the main questions. By this time, Robort has become a man and is a main figure in what can only be called a revolutionary cell. He and a few others run an anti-establishment paper and rail constantly against the current guild caste system and agitate for a better tomorrow where all men are equal and work for the good of society.
Robert’s quest for answers takes him to heights of Guild society and the lows of mart living. As the mysteries are revealed we see how Robert is intimately connected to the aether and is uniquely suited to be a revolutionary. All in all, even though the story would bog down for pages at a time, the narrative still packed enough punch to keep me going. And the prose itself, as well as the imaginitive world, is almost worth a read by itself. I’d say “The Light Ages” is more of a fantasy novel than SF, but there are SF elements to it. If you like alternate history, give this one a go.