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Ian R. MacLeod
The House of Storms
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Simon & Schuster UK
UK Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-743-25672-7
Publication Date: 02-01-2005
457 Pages; £12.99
Date Reviewed: 01-31-05

Index: Science Fiction  General Fiction  Fantasy

Ambitious women might not make great mothers, but they do make great characters. Alice Meynell, the ruthless Great Grandmistress of the Guild of Telegraphers fully expects her son Ralph to die when she brings him to Invercombe, on the edge of England at the beginning of Ian R. MacLeod's 'The House of Storms'. This is not the England that we know, but the England that Macleod created for his previous novel, 'The Light Ages', some hundred years hence. The age of aether is still upon the world, and magic shines through the cracks of developing technology. It shines through MacLeod's powerful prose as well, illuminating the novel from within and driving it at a rapid pace. Magic is power -- absolute power -- and it corrupts absolutely. But, as with any power, it's possible to pull the plug, if you are willing to endure the chaos that can follow. MacLeod throws the switch, pulls the plug and turns in an electrifying novel of people who willingly and unwillingly serve as conduits for powers they can only begin to comprehend.

Invercombe may be a quiet, sleepy, seaside town, but it has a power about it, a sense of place that MacLeod evokes with careful prose. Even Alice Meynell, a mover and shaker used to being the center of attention in the centers of power, senses this presence. She's strangely happy there, and happier still when Ralph's seemingly terminal condition takes a turn for the better. As he makes an almost miraculous recovery, he slowly falls for one of the servants, Marion Price. Hoping to help his health, Alice encourages the relationship, which rapidly goes farther than even she intends. As Ralph discovers Marion, he also discovers with her a process he sees at work in the world, something that together they decide to call Habitual Adaptation. Ralph and Marion plan to study this process, but Alice has plans as well, and the power that courses through her will not allow those plans to be altered.

Though 'The House of Storms' takes place in the world that MacLeod created for 'The Light Ages', the novel stands alone more than most sequels, even those intended as "standalone". No characters are carried over, and the way the world now works is rather different from the previous novel. Moreover, the style is rather different. Whereas 'The Light Ages' was suffused with melancholy, 'The House of Storms' is suffused with power, the kind of power that burns away the souls of those unfortunate enough to conduct it. This makes 'The House of Storms' a quicker, cleaner novel to read.

This is not to say that MacLeod has left behind the gorgeous and evocative prose that made 'The Light Ages' such a treat. Rather, he's deployed it for use by Alice Meynell, one of the most fearsome and powerful characters ever to strut from the printed page and set up shop in the reader's mind. MacLeod is smart about unfolding the depths of Alice's emotions. We come to sympathize with the commanding but caring mother who brings Ralph to the surprisingly salubrious climes of Invercombe. But as she goes about her business, she reveals edges so sharp they cut with the casual ease of a razor. Blood is welling from the wound before the reader realizes the wound has been inflicted.

Ralph, on the other hand, is the kind of questing soul that makes fiction about science so much fun to read. As he and Marion unearth the processes behind Habitual Adaptation, MacLeod gets in a few nice barbs about the implausibility of "intelligent design" while allowing readers to experience the thrill of discovering both love and science. MacLeod even offers a glimpse of entertaining ordinariness in the life of Marion, the "shoregirl" who grows in the length of the narrative into a force that even the Great Grandmistress Alice Meynell must reckon with. One of the many smart choices that MacLeod makes in this novel is his willingness to refrain from "the name game" that often turns stories that meddle with history into cavalcades of guest stars by historical figures. Instead, MacLeod lets his characters assume full and complete fictional lives within his fictional world. It's a decision that helps make the world he creates more real, more palpable.

MacLeod's world and his novel are chock-a-block with ideas as intriguing as his characters and plots. He imbues his novel with exciting riffs from cyberpunk and war epics. Every bit as haunting as Invercombe is Einfell, a colony of changelings nearby. The changelings are those who have suffered so much exposure to aether that they have gone quite far beyond being human. MacLeod makes a frontal assault on both conservative and progressive politics, playing them out to a bloody and very bitter end. But for all the invention, all the playful intellectualizing, the author never loses focus on his characters and an epic arc of murder, madness, mutation and war.

In the end, as compelling as the plot may be, readers will find themselves slowing down, holding back, turning the pages with deliberate care. For the world that MacLeod creates, the characters who live there, the schemes and terrors they find themselves involved in are so real, so beautifully rendered, that readers will not want to leave them behind. The fact is, you won't be able to leave 'The House of Storms' behind. The events that come to pass in the book will have the same weight as the events in your life, the memories of what happens will be memories you can visit as easily as the memories of your own life. Wonder, terror and love will make you turn the pages; the same emotions will make you wish there were more to turn. Take heart, because you will be able to return to the world of Invercombe, to 'The House of Storms'. No, magic, no aether will be required to ensure that you'll be able to remember every place, every person, every deed.

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