The House of Storms
by Ian R. MacLeod
Reviewed by Christopher DeFilippis
It is the 99th Year in the Age of Light. The magical substance aether fuels the miraculous advances of this industrial era, where guilds jealously guard their cabalistic trade secrets.
And perhaps no one harbors more secrets than Alice Meynell, Greatgrandmistress of the Guild of Telegraphers, who possesses beauty and cunning in equal measure. She will stop at nothing to advance the prowess of her guild and, by extension, her own social standing. But for all her manipulations, Alice is still thwarted by the incurable illness ravaging her son Ralph. And so the pair comes to Invercombe, a sprawling manse on England’s west coast, where the clean sea breezes hold the last hopes for Ralph’s recovery.
They soon discover that the air of Invercombe does indeed hold some kind of inherent power, which Alice is more than willing to exploit, though it may come from a troubling source: the nearby settlement of Einfell, a village filled with creatures who were once human but have become hideously transfigured by too much aether exposure. Shunned by society, these changelings nevertheless possess fascinating powers. And Alice is no stranger to brokering for power.
Meanwhile, Invercombe’s colorful human denizens are showing the Greatgrandmistress how business (legal and otherwise) is done in the west, and she quickly spots a commodity that could vault the wealth of her guild immeasurably.
And so author Ian R. MacLeod sets the stage for The House of Storms, revisiting the alternate England introduced in his 2003 novel The Light Ages.
I initially approached The House of Storms with some trepidation. As much as I liked the magical Gilded Age society MacLeod had presented in The Light Ages, I found that novel somewhat disappointing. (I was in the minority; the book drew raves from just about everyone.) Yet I did appreciate a few of its more outstanding elements, chiefly the author’s considerable world-building skills and his exploration of both the wonders and dangers inherent in handling aether, represented by the bizarre transformations afflicting the changelings.
But The Light Ages lacked pep, its fantastic premise mired in a plodding tale of social revolution waged by a rather mundane lot of revolutionaries. Perhaps it’s the cynic in me, but I find absolutist ideologies (socialist or otherwise) tedious, and the characters in The Light Ages struck me as unrealistically naive for clinging so readily to a movement that was obviously doomed to fail (as MacLeod showed us it would right in the prologue).
Fortunately, House of Storms presents a much more realistic take on the way power is gained and kept, personified in Alice’s deft use of both strong-armed tactics and shadowy machinations in order to get what she wants. She soon proves herself a puppet master of frightening capabilities who will take any step necessary to see her plans come to fruition, even if it means plunging England into civil war. And she’ll use anyone, even her beloved Ralph, as a pawn in those pursuits.
The character of Alice Meynell by herself is enough to atone for the entire humdrum cast of The Light Ages. But MacLeod gives us so much more.
Readers also get to know Marion Price, a willful and intelligent girl from a neighboring shore village whom Alice brings to Invercombe to work as a maid, but who soon gets close to a miraculously recovering Ralph. Alice may drive the story’s action, but Marion lies at its heart. Also masterfully crafted is Ralph’s journey from death’s door, initially filled with all the ebullience of youthful self-discovery, only to be poignantly tempered by the inevitable comedowns that follow those first optimistic steps into manhood.
A diverse and entertaining supporting cast surrounds these central players, including many changelings, along with another brilliant main character who enters the story in the second half of the novel.
With The House of Storms, MacLeod has written the book that I so badly wanted The Light Ages to be: one in which his lyrical and creative prose buoys compelling characters immersed in a story that’s entertaining, complex and even genuinely shocking at times.
Though there are some fleeting references to characters and events in The Light Ages, the action in The House of Storms takes place about 100 years later. It is more a stand alone novel in a shared universe than the second book in a series. But I recommend you read The Light Ages first if you haven’t already, since it lays much of the societal groundwork on which The House of Storms treads, seemingly confident in the assumption that readers are already somewhat familiar with the territory. If you’re not, you should take a field trip as soon as possible.
The House of Storms is a prime example of the type of literate human drama that is coming to define modern fantasy.