Ian Macleod’s The Light Ages and The House of Storms are core steampunk texts. Not only do they utilize what have come to be the central tropes of the sub-genre (anachronistic technology, class struggle, and Victorian England), they also feature superb prose and an uncanny intertwining of vividly realized characters with theme. Published two years after The House of Storms, “The Master Miller’s Tale” (2007) is a wonderful addition to the world that distills elements of the two prior novels into one exemplary novella.
“The Master Miller’s Tale” is the story of Nathan Westover, the latest in a long line of Westovers manning the grain mill on Burling Hill in Stagsby, a rural English community. Taught the spells that keep the winches and pulleys turning by his mother, and by his father the necessities of bargaining with the wind-seller for the knotted ropes that will unleash the skies when they become calm, Nathan spends his youth learning the ways of the big wooden windmill, getting dusty with flour along the way. Coming to understand every aspect of the trade as he grows, Nathan is ready to take over when his father suddenly passes away, the family business in good hands. But something new appears in Nathan’s lifetime that his ancestors never had to deal with: aether technology. Finding the new competition stiffer than his upbringing taught him to handle, Nathan pushes himself harder and harder to stay ahead, working the old windmill on Burling Hill to its limits. Problem is, even the most well-maintained mill has a breaking point. And so too do people.
Macleod not content to tell a maudlin tale of a poor miller vs. the forces of human industry that contrive to destroy his bucolic way of life, “The Master Miller’s Tale” is more balanced in its politics. Admittedly far from painting the industrial revolution as a positive step in history, Nathan is nevertheless set within a larger context—a context that needs to be read to be appreciated—that endows the story with more complex meaning. Conversations with the wind-seller drawing much of this meaning out, the symbolism inherent to Nathan’s fate is superbly done, as well as being indicative of Macleod’s stance regarding the meaning of technological advances in society.
Combining the labor uprisings of The House of Storms with the socio-political agenda of The Light Ages (as well as the boy/girl dichotomy of each), “The Master Miller’s Tale” is a prequel time-wise and redux theme-wise of the novels appearing thus far in Macleod’s aether-ized England. Unique to the novella, however, is the usage of wind and breath as the main motifs—the last lines powerful capping a fine story.
In the end, “The Master Miller’s Tale” evokes the dark talents of Charles Dickens and Keith Roberts as much as The Light Ages and The House of Storms, and will be a real treat for those who enjoyed the novels and are looking for more. In the same regard, for those haven’t read the Aether books, the novella makes for a nice introduction to the themes, setting, and style, and would be a great litmus test. Either way, the Aether universe continues to prove itself as not only core steampunk, but among the best in the sub-genre.