Blurb: In a bleak and gritty England, in a fantastical Age of Industry, the wealth that comes from magic is both revered and reviled. Here, an ambitious young man is haunted by his childhood love–a woman determined to be a part of the world he despises.
The England in this novel is reminiscent of Charles Dickens’ England, only with a twist: aether, a magical substance that transformed English society. Aether is almost like a magical glue in that it holds things together that would otherwise come apart, which is both good and bad when it is the major component of most of England’s infrastructure, as it short-circuits progress: why search for ways to improve things when you can just fix them with aether? Aether must be mined and used in combination with magic, which leads to a controlling elite of Guilds and Guildsmen, who control the economy and therefore the jobs, and an underclass of miners—who, after years of exposure, are sometimes slowly transformed into hideous creatures: Changelings, also called “trolls,” and are considered fit only for the asylum, where they are used for experimentation.
Robert Borrows is born in a town in Yorkshire that is the heart of aether mining country. It’s said that the residents’ hearts beat in time with the enormous aether engines that power the country. When he is still just a boy, Robert’s mother turns into a troll, which destroys his family. Rejecting a dreary future as a member of his father’s Guild, Robert runs away to London, where he’s able to live a life outside the Guilds, albeit one of poverty and petty crime. He soon becomes a political agitator, arguing that society is at a turning point: it’s time for revolution and a new society, one without the strict social strata imposed by the guilds.
But Robert has also seen the better things in life. Shortly before her death, his mother introduced him to Annalise, who is not quite human—a Changeling?—and whom he encounters on Midsummer’s Day in London. She now styles herself Anna Winters, a part of the upper class. Robert senses that their destinies are intertwined, but he’s not sure how—until he begins to suspect something, something that binds him to Anna, something involving their parents, and the day the aether engines stopped.
MacLeod’s writing is superb. The descriptions are lush, gorgeous, and give a real sense of time and place. His characters are likewise nuanced and multifaceted. But Robert is a very passive character, and slow to make connections; the book, already slow-moving, bogs down under the sheer weight of his passivity and introspection, and sometimes it’s difficult to keep track of the actual events of the story. Which is too bad, because the setting, the characters, and most of all the language are extraordinary, but the story itself doesn’t quite hold up.
This book was provided by the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
My rating: 3 stars