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The Light Ages
Ian R. MacLeod
Pocket paperback £6.99

review by Simeon Shoul

Robbie Burrows grows up in a small Yorkshire pit-town, a pit-town with a difference. It isn't coal that they dig out of the ground it is Aether. A fluid, weightless, mystical substance, Aether (and the spells that control it) makes steel stronger, edges sharper, machines better. It makes and powers pumps and locomotives, enables telegraphy (almost telepathy), and lets the Guildmasters who know its secrets sculpt mythic beasts from common animals for the entertainment of the aristocracy...
   Aether has created an Industrial Revolution with a twist, at once magical, and brutal, founded of equal parts mysticism and sheer hard, bloody sweat. Poverty - still plenty of that around. Inequality - loads of that too. Pollution - oh yes, and of the nastiest kind. A little bit of Aether is a blessing, too much of it is a curse. Robbie Burrows gets to discover just how much of a curse Aether can be (radiation has nothing on it!). Rebelling against its domination of his life, and against the stultifying hard reality of his home, he flees to London, to bright lights, dark underworld and gathering revolution.
   Robbie, though he doesn't know it, is seeking both for balance in his own life and the world of privilege and poverty he inhabits, and for answers to how that world works, and why it is so disordered and unjust. Naive, and often careless, he stumbles in his search for answers, his awkward semi-courtship of an Aether-afflicted girl, Anna, his place in the gathering revolt aimed at the dominating Guilds. MacLeod has created a parallel world with careful, even meticulous precision. He is a measured, graceful writer, not in a hurry to thrust his characters into crises, content to allow drama to grow slowly out of the fabric of a discontented, restless life. Robbie slips from gutter to gala with the awkwardness of a semi-educated and gauche northern boy; this is reality as fantasy, with no cheap and easy solutions.
   This is at once the strength of the work, and its weakness. Many readers may feel dissatisfaction at the gradual development of the story, and crave harder, more complete answers. But MacLeod is alive to this. Robbie also craves hard answers, and if MacLeod denies them to him, that is a statement about how the world, even in fantasyland, really is. This is a mature, complex fantasy, a touch melancholy perhaps, but admirable for its depth and conviction. It won't please everyone, but for some it will prove a welcome relief from the mad scramble and cheap shortcuts of so much current work.
The Light Ages

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