The Light Ages – Ian R. MacLeod


Imagine that at the dawn of the Industrial Age, a powerful and magical substance was discovered that allowed craftsmen to employ spells to charm materials to be stronger and machines to work more smoothly than they would naturally. In The Light Ages, an alternative vision of history unfolds, starting perhaps a few hundred years ago. Author Ian MacLeod introduces his main character Robert Burrows at the closing of the third century of this age of aether. Society doesn’t really progress much as those with power and wealth, secure in their position, live off the labors of the workers who mine the magical aether, and suffer its effects. Innovation is stifled, as it really isn’t needed, as long as there is a supply of aether to keep the machines running. Problems arise when the aether begins to run out…

I had the hardest time getting into this book. The first chapter left me puzzled, with little motivation to go on. My mother recommended it however, and although she has what I consider terrible taste in television programs (she’ll watch anything), she has a good eye for fantasy and science fiction. So a month after first picking it up, I tried again. Like the protagonist, the reader is initially muddled and confused by the society in which Borrows finds himself, and the events that unfold. Gradually, more and more of the mystery is revealed, and the connections between disparate people, places, and events all come into focus. MacLeod is an excellent writer, and now that I understand what the story is about, I’m re-reading the book just to enjoy the writing. I don’t think the book actually did that well – there are loads of used copies listed on for 2 bucks. And if that’s the case, that’s really too bad; this is a much better fantasy book than most. It is ultimately a pessimistic story, one of revolution and hope, resulting in a new society only slightly better packaged than the old one. It is a caution to anyone who thinks there is some great technological panacea out there, a powerful energetic source that can solve all the world’s social ills.