...aether is like no other element, and it shuns all physical rules. It is weightless, and notoriously difficult to contain. Purified, its wyreglow fills the darkness, but spills shadows in bright light. Strangest of all, and yet most crucial to all the industries and livelihoods it helps sustain, aether responds to the will of the human spirit ... with it, we are able to make things more thinly, more cheaply, more quickly and — it has to be admitted — often more crudely than the harsh and inconvenient rules of simple nature would ever allow. Boilers which would otherwise explode, pistons which would stutter, buildings and beams and bearings which would shatter and crumble, are borne aloft from mere physics on the aether-fuelled bubbles of guildsmen's spells. (p.30)
I liked Song of Time so was keen to read more of MacLeod's writing. The Light Ages didn't hook me to the same extent: I was fascinated by the worldbuilding, by the complexity and creativity, but ultimately felt there was too much going on and not enough happening. (If that makes any sense.)
The Light Ages is set in an England that isn't our own. I'd got the impression, from the blurb, that this was an alternate 17th-century: though quickly amending that assumption, it took me a while to work out just when it was set. (I'm guessing mid-to-late 20th century, though MacLeod's London feels more Victorian, more Dickensian.) Why should the period setting matter? It shouldn't -- except for the desire to ground oneself in time if not in other ways: because Light Ages England, after the discovery of aether, is vastly different to our own reality. (There is, for instance, no Father Christmas: instead, there's the hooved and masked Lord of Misrule who comes down from the moon on Christmas Eve with his cloak of leaves (p. 386). I can make sense of that in a world where the Industrial Revolution was shorter and stranger, where the last king was executed three centuries ago, where England is more insular.)
This is a novel about social change: about the changes wrought by aether (and the damage it does to individuals, possibly on a genetic level as well as more overtly) and about the changes wrought on society by aether, and the ills of that society and how they might be remedied. The economics of aether underlie the interactions of the characters: Robert Burrows, born in a northern town of parents who met at the Works; Annalise, changeling; Sadie, warm-hearted aristocratic daughter of a Greatgrandmaster of the Guild; George, another aristocrat with revolutionary leanings. For -- surely, they whisper on the streets, in the dreamhouses -- surely it's the end of the Third Age, surely it's time for a new age to dawn ...
There's a great deal in here about change, about appearance and reality, about living myth and magic and what might replace them: it's all beautifully written (I do love MacLeod's prose style) and strikingly inventive. I'm still trying to work out why it didn't hook me, and I suspect it's because I didn't click with any of the characters. I'm still looking forward to reading House of Storms, though!