BY PAUL KIRSCH
Author: Ian MacLeod
Once I arrived at graduate school, I immediately discovered that people read “literate” and “popular” writing differently. Those two terms, and the spaces between them, go by a lot of names. “Character based” vs. “plot based” is a big one. I once heard a newcomer (of more seasons than myself) say he was there for the “serious fiction program.” I wondered which part of my education (or my writing) I wasn’t taking seriously.
Both sides have their merits and their pitfalls. I can’t say that every book I’ve read is Dostoevsky, but that doesn’t mean I hold it to any less rigorous a standard. Any book should entertain and inspire with equal measure. It pays to stay receptive to any work of fiction that is written well.
Take the steampunk genre. When it comes to mind, your imagination settles on something akin to a refined lady hiking up her skirt as she leaps between the cars of a moving train. Not what you’d typically find in a “narrative-heavy” read, where the emotional geography between characters counts for more than the shifting position of clockwork cities. That’s not necessarily a bad thing. When you pick up steampunk, you expect you’re about to experience the unlikely adventures of a time period that never was. But believe me, it goes both ways. I’ve seen steampunk narratives every bit as thick (and characters as deep) as anything you could find under the Penguin Classics label. And sometimes, even more so.
Ian MacLeod’s The Light Ages is heavy, heavy reading. Lest anyone think that the genre lacks depth submerge into the emotional mire of this text. The protagonist, Robert Borrows, grew up in the equivalent of a coal-mining town with the “SHOOM BOOM SHOOM BOOM” of the local engines reverberating in his head 24/7. The sound haunts him (and the reader) throughout the book. He watches a beloved family member waste into madness and deformity from a disease of magical origin. His infatuation with an inaccessible, fey girl ceaselessly picks at his thoughts.
Robert’s world is caught on the cusp between “Ages.” Everyone recognizes, like a phantom anxiety they can’t quite pin down, that the current Age is coming to an end. Only they don’t know how to get it there, or what the next one will bring.
Adventure? Excitement? Robert spends some time riding trains. He navigates a blood-stained revolution. He plays at socialite after accidentally drinking too much. When I think back to this book, I don’t recall any grand airship battles. I recall the awkward, confused, violent squalling of growing up, and change.
The sequel, The House of Storms, sits unopened on my shelf. Now that I know the emotional investment it takes to read Ian MacLeod, I want to give that book the attention that it deserves. Because when I think back to The Light Ages, I hear “SHOOM BOOM SHOOM BOOM,” and feel an ache in my chest that doesn’t go away.
A version of this review first appeared on Paul Kirsch’s personal blog.
Similar Reads: City of Saints and Madmen, by Jeff Vandermeer, Perdido Street Station, by China Mieville.