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The Light Ages

by Ian R MacLeod

(US edition: Ace Books, $23.95, 456 pages, hardcover, published 1 May 2003.
UK editions: Earthlight, £17.99, 456 pages, hardback, published 2 June 2003; Pocket Books, £6.99, 456 pages, paperback, April 2004. Pocket Books, £6.99, 456 pages, mass market paperback, 5 April 2004. )

Review by Stuart Jaffe

The Light Ages follows the life of Robert Borrows as he grows up in a slightly askew version of England -- askew because it is at once Victorian cover scan (US)England and a fantasy England that never existed. In this version, aether is the main source of energy in the world. It is a magical force, mined from deep within the Earth, that can shape everything around us. And it has stalled the progress of the world.

Much has been discussed elsewhere concerning this idea of stalled progress. People have compared it to our own times, our own technologies, and such. So I will forgo that discussion and focus on the storytelling.

MacLeod's writing in this book has been referred to as Dickensish, and it is. But there is more at hand here than just the mere Dickens atmosphere. This is the tale of a young boy growing into adulthood and discovering the harsh realities of life -- particularly, the discrepancies between rich and poor. This common Dickens theme is lifted straight from Great Expectations and transplanted with expert skill into The Light Ages. MacLeod goes so far as to add in the girl Annalise, raised in a decrepit manor, Redhouse, by an aged and twisted guardian. There is also the mysterious benefactor of mixed intentions, though in MacLeod's version the man's identity is less obscured from the beginning. Sound familiar?

Here's where things get interesting, though. While playing the Dickens card fairly overtly, MacLeod also borrows from Hardy's Jude the Obscure. Like The Light Ages, Jude follows a young boy in a small village as he grows up and enters the larger city world. Just as Jude once cover scan (UK)did, Robert scans over the night skies of his town in order to dream of the future, in order to figure out how his world runs.

These are, of course, just a few small examples of the textual play at hand. MacLeod reaches deep into these literatures and mines them for their power, just as his characters mine the aether. Any English major worth his salt, though, could have a blast putting together a scholarly paper on this subject.

For the more casual reader, the use of Dickens and Hardy add a wonderful blanket over the entire story. Such self-referential work can often crumble under itself as the reader is constantly reminded that there is another book with a similar story. If the writing is not up to par, the reader will wonder, "Why the heck am I reading this drivel, when I could be reading the good source material?" Thankfully, MacLeod is a talented writer who pulls off the tale with remarkable ease. It's an enjoyable story, a memorable world, and a worthwhile read.

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