Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Review of "The House of Storms" by Ian R. MacLeod

The breadth of English language reading material not always readily available in Poland, particularly sci-fi and fantasy, I often must resort to reading whatever I can lay my hands on.  It was thus when Ian MacLeod’s 2005 The House of Storms came available on the Polish equivalent of ebay, I bid and won.  (The flip side to being an English language reader in Poland is there’s not much competition for said material.)  I knew it was a loose sequel to The Light Ages, but all the reviews stated the books were not necessary to read in order.  Individually and as a whole, yes, they were right: The House of Storms is self-contained, and like the reviews in comparison to one another, yes, quality fluctuates.

The setting of the alternate history novel is deliciously steampunk.  All the action located in a Victorian-esque England, an intriguing substance called aether has permeated societal development to the same point oil has ours.  Fueling an industrial boom that has improved communication, transportation and technology, the substance also causes harm to those who are exposed for too long, even mutating unborn children.  A valuable resource, it causes its share of conflict, and as the telegraph is being wired over England, bloody clashes as to who controls the all-important communication lines.  The lower class involuntary a member of the conflict, The House of Storms covers all layers of society toward examining, amongst other things, industrial revolutions and the existence of the supernatural.

But the setting and the struggles of the high and low born are presented indirectly through the story’s three main characters: Alice Meynell, greatgrandmistress of the telegraph guild; her son Ralph, a consumptive and budding Darwinist; and Marion Price his forbidden shoregirl lover.  A sublime sorceress, Alice uses her magical abilities in combination with aether to keep herself looking forever young.  In doing so, she is able to influence many of the higher-ups in society, gaining position and imposing her will.  Ralph not the strong man she would have him be, Alice nonetheless paves the way for his rise to power, quietly and secretly disposing of those who oppose.  Occupied with these affairs, however, she is caught off guard by the romance Ralph has with their maid, Marion, and it isn’t until too late that Alice is able to intervene, her family, the guilds, and country crumbling apart.

The characters representing the ideas and ideologies in conflict, strong religious and socio-political metaphors are woven through the story.  Ralph’s Darwinist tendencies, for example, clash mightily with creationist ideas of the side which comes to oppose him in the civil war (this sounds rather bland, but giving more details about that side may spoil some story elements).  Thus the plot events may seem implausible (e.g. the manner in which Alice moves through the upper echelons society like a silent scythe), but retain a larger value in the context of thematic goals.  When civil war breaks out and additional characters are added, the scenes become even more disjointed, but when sieved through the ideologies under discussion, fit.  It will thus be difficult for passive readers to connect with the characters, but for those with a wider view.

But despite the richness and fertility of the novel’s ideological soil, there remain concerns.  Major character fall, but it is too obviously for thematic rather than plot purposes.  The deaths incongruous with the surface level of story being told, a gap appears.  More concerning, however, is style. Certainly not the syntax (it is quality), but in how Macleod powers of prose are utilized.  A novel that could have been pared down without losing impact, the second half of the novel in particular waxes and wanes.  Operating at the introspective level, there is much rambling that looks nice, but in fact progresses matters little, either from a character or societal perspective.  The number of time the reader is subject to Alice’s makeup sessions, for example, slows already patient plotting.  And there are numerous paragraphs which read like the somber overtones of a child with ADHD - the old stones remind me of something from the past, peach cobbler, fruit growing on a tree, life and death, and what of Darwin, and evolution...  The exclamation point, however, is that Simon & Schuster hired a kindergarten student to do the editing; glaring errors in spelling and grammar are rampant throughout.  Macleod cannot be blamed for this, which leaves it a shame the beautiful cover does not match copy.

In the end, The House of Storms is a novel with a lot of ambition that, if one is able to read between the lines, connects the symbolism inherent to character with the religious and social subject matter under discussion.  Literary fantasy with a steampunk facade, Macleod’s re-visioning of Victorian England looks into class struggle, slavery, techno-monopolies on the socio-political side, and at creationism and evolution at on the cosmological.  The text at times lacking life, the latter half of the novel is sometimes tough going, but rewards upon digging in.  I am now actively seeking The Light Ages to learn what ideas the initiator of this setting presented.  *

* September 10, 2013 – My initial thoughts on The House of Storms reconsidered, this post has been entirely revised.  Several important elements disguised (both unduly and appropriately) by Macleod’s style eluded my understanding immediately upon finishing.  Having had proper time to filter through the brain, I now have a stronger opinion of the novel, which I hope is reflected in this updated review.

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