The Light Ages
by Ian R. MacLeod
Ace, 2003, ISBN 0-441-01055-5
A book review by Elisabeth Carey
This book has all the feel of a Victorian England setting, but that's not quite right. It's set in an alternate England, and date of divergence appears to 1798 (although that's not 100% clear), and the story takes places three Ages after that--about three centuries.
The cause of the divergence is the discovery of aether, which makes possible a magic-based, Guild-controlled economy with a social structure much like Victorian England, only more repressive and with less hope for change. Guilds control all the really useful work, and all the wealth, and membership in a guild is a secure spot in the social structure. Unfortunately, working with aether carries with it the risk of becoming a Changeling, or, to use this society's ruder word, a troll--a mutant, essentially, usually monstrous. Trolls, or Changelings, even former Guild members, have no rights, and get locked up in warehouses wear they can, sometimes, be experimented upon. The Light Ages is the story of Robert Borrows, a young boy whose mother becomes a troll and is taken away, and who is later befriended by a Guild Grandmaster who apparently has some connection with his mother from years ago. Between the Grandmaster's strange behavior, and the differently strange behavior of a beautiful girl his own age who turns out to be a really odd sort of Changeling, Robert begins to suspect something of the dark secret stalking the Guilds. It's not until he runs away to London and experiences both the life of an unguilded, edges-of-the-law laborer and radical agitator, and the life of the wealthy high Guild families, that he truly starts to realize what a house of cards this all is.
It's an interesting world, and there's an interesting story in here, but Robert Borrows is both an amazingly passive protagonist, and annoyingly slow at catching on to anything involving people.
Good, but not as good as it ought to be.