The Light Ages, by Ian R. MacLeod
Well, I'd been wanting to read this particular novel for some time -- the premise laid out on the back, of an alternate London where people are occasionally transformed by a magical substance (aether) into inhuman changelings, sounded right up my alley -- I love transformation stories, as anybody who knows me will probably figure out pretty quickly ;)
Unfortunately, transformation is not truly the focus of the story here. As mentioned above, this novel is set in an alternate England -- one in which aether (a kind of pure, processable form of magic) was discovered several hundred years ago and is now used to power and shape all industry and manufacturing; cultural and technological progress has reached a kind of Victorian/Industrial Revolution point and has remained frozen there for some time. Aether has an interesting (and unfortunate, for factory workers) side effect -- overexposure to it can cause a kind of gradual mutation into any of innumerable, monstrously inhuman forms. The few transformations of this type that the book details are its real high points, in my opinion. I usually find characters' transformations almost enviable -- I mean, there's a lot of wish fulfillment in the whole turning-into-a-vampire, growing-wings, developing-superpowers kind of transformation and a lot of room for daydreaming about "what if," as well ("what if" I was turned into a frog, etc.); but, here, the transformations are truly off-putting. These people turn into things that nobody would want to turn into -- their humanity is gone, their minds are lost or twisted, their families are left to watch them warp into totally alien horrors. The first transformation scene in particular, early in the novel during the protagonist's childhood, is beautifully done -- you can feel the perversion of the change in the whole description. These bits are great -- and they are clearly a clever metaphor/parallel to the injuries and disabilities that factory workers in the "real" world experienced during a similar point in our history due to their terrible working conditions.
As noted above, though, the changelings really aren't the focus of the story -- two of them may be recurring characters, yes; but these two are the most human of the bunch, and they certainly don't fall into the same category as the grotesque once-humans that are glossed over in places throughout the story. The real focus here is, instead, the society created by the author -- its politics, its corruption, its inner workings. In this way, it feels very much like a Dickens-type novel -- we have people being related in strange ways, lowly-born protagonist who moves startlingly up in life, examination of social conditions (the treatment of the poor and the decadence of the rich), a cry for social change, etc. This book may be good enough for what it is, but it's not what I wanted -- slow-moving, deliberate, wordy, it spends most of its length leading up to a "revelation" that is anything but surprising (or interesting) and putzes out in an ending that, while it definitely feels inevitable, is almost depressing and rather dull -- it certainly doesn't feel worth all the work and lead-up put into getting there. Sigh.
Anyway, I suppose this book would be probably be better received by readers who like their books driven more by politics/social conditions/etc. than I do. I was expecting something where the magic was more than just a clever plot/world-building device and where I truly liked and cared for the characters -- maybe even a little actual romance . . . but, no. This is a tale of a "higher order" -- here, the characters, the world, the events all serve the atmosphere and the point the author is trying to make. It's not so much a story about people as a story about "society" -- in a rather pretentious, disheartening sense of the word. Ay, well. Not really my cup of tea, eh?