Ian R. MacLeod is most definitely a talented writer capable of making his words dance across the written page, but I have to admit I found The Light Ages a slow, sometimes frustrating read. The actual events and experiences driving the story are disjointed, and while the highly literate prose ebbs and flows at times like a beauty of nature, it proves incapable of assembling the whole into something completely intelligible. This is fantasy of a high order that many readers will surely enjoy more than I did, and any question of MacLeod's talent can be easily swept aside by noting the World Fantasy Award he won for his novella The Summer Isles. As this is MacLeod's first novel, though, I personally cannot help but wonder if he tried too hard to reach a lofty pinnacle of success. The words, as beautiful and carefully crafted as they are, just seem to get in the way of the story at times. There are several quite compelling scenes, but these inevitably fall away into a sort of miasma not unlike the alternative London MacLeod constructed for his novel.
The primary backdrop of The Light Ages is a future London wherein a Dickensian sort of social order has prevailed for a full three centuries, fueled by the discovery of aether, a magical substance that is mined from the earth. Industrialization failed to progress, to a large degree, because aether and the spells guarded zealously by the guilds could magically make inferior items, including those making up the industrial infrastructure of society, perfectly workable. On their own, such structures as the low-quality train tracks and flimsily-constructed buildings could never stand, but aether kept everything in working order. Thus, industry stagnated, and society, through the course of three century-long Ages, also stagnated into a tightly compartmentalized world of guilds. Social mobility was all but unheard of; the son of a toolmaker would grow up to be a toolmaker because there was no other option. A few individuals, though, seemed to possess magic inside themselves, and these creatures were rooted out and ostracized as trolls (i.e., changelings). Robert Barrows was born into this world, growing up in the town of Bracebridge, the most important aether mining town in England. One special day during his childhood, his mother took him to a home outside of town, where he met an extraordinary young girl named Annalise, and soon thereafter his mother began to change horribly. With her death, he chose to flee his world and seek his destiny in London. It is here that he becomes a social revolutionary, working to usher in the light of a brand new Age, one in which society is not stratified by wealth, status, or birth. Oddly enough, he also sometimes walks in the world of the guildmasters, the very persons he is trying to overthrow, and it is here where he meets Annalise again. The rest of the novel is a meandering tale of discovery and loss, mixing in a remarkable cast of characters, as Robert strives to discover the secret of his home town of Bracebridge, a secret that unites him and Annalise in the most fundamental, albeit mysterious, of manners.
One problem I have with the book is the fact that some of the most important events and transitions take place between sections. We see Robert hop a train to escape to London, and the next thing we know he is working for a socialist newspaper five years later. Since MacLeod's main emphasis in this novel, at least as it appeared to me, was a careful and close critique of man and society, Robert's transformation would seem to have offered the author a perfect means of pursuing his loftier goals for the story. There were moments when MacLeod succeeded in demonstrating the common humanity of the wealthy guildmen and unguilded marts such as Robert, yet no individual's real self seemed to emerge from these pages; thus, the motivations of different characters at different times were difficult to understand, and the whole point of the novel is, in one sense, seemingly challenged by the ending. The Light Ages is not a cheerful, inspirational story, but I don't think it tries to be; personally, I'm not entirely sure what the novel was intended to be, and that is the source of my own dissatisfaction of sorts with what could have potentially been a truly insightful, socioeconomically challenging novel.