I have never before read anything by Ian R. MacLeod. I have a terrible and impoverishing addiction to purchasing titles from specialty publisher Subterranean Press, and during an all-too-common binge (this time it was Charles Stross titles), I saw this on offer, shrugged, said, "What the hell?" and added it to my cart.
I don't recall hearing much about Ian R. MacLeod either. His name is almost criminally similar to Ian McDonald, however, whose The Dervish House is my pick for this year's Hugo Award for Best Novel. Indeed, their names are so similar that I am afraid I will confuse these two authors. I assume that with a name like MacLeod, Ian R. must be immortal, and therefore I shall refer to him as "the Highlander" for the rest of this review. Wikipedia tells me that he was actually born in Birmingham and not the Scottish highlands, but I am too smart to fall for that small bit of trickery, Highlander.
Journeys is an anthology but not a slapdash one. At nine stories it feels short, but the stories themselves are quite long for short stories. And, for the most part, the stories are good. As someone who much prefers novel-length stories, I took a risk in introducing myself to the Highlander through an anthology. I would do it again though, because Journeys was an enjoyable, even magical experience.
Wikipedia also mentions that another of the Highlander's series is an alternate universe affair where the use of aether has preserved the trade guild structure in England and "has retarded technological progress". In hindsight, then, the common theme running through Journeys makes a lot of sense. Several of these stories are set in a similar (if not the same) universe, an alternate England where magic is much more in evidence. The first story, "The Master Miller's Tale", seems to take place near the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. Nathan watches steam-driven mills slowly supersede his traditional mill, which is held together by song spells. He gets mixed up in a group of Luddite-like terrorists who go around sabotaging steam-driven installations. For Nathan, there is also a personal component: the woman he had an adolescent crush on is now a champion of steam technology. Another story, "Elementals", is set a bit later, toward the Victorian end of the century. Its narrator is acquainted with an amateur scientist who is convinced he can harness elemental beings as an alternative energy source. The truth turns out to be much more complicated—and much more metaphysical.
Most of the stories in Journeys also involve the narrators losing themselves, physically or psychologically, and the above two stories are good examples. Nathan is so attached to his mill that it becomes difficult for him to realize his business is dying. Eventually he becomes obsessed with finding the windseller, a merchant who used to come by and sell bagged winds for him to release and use at his mill. Nathan's own obsessions offer a kind of opening for magic to enter him and consume him, and it's a similar story in "Elementals". The narrator learns that elementals are not tied to one element, that they are not the Other; rather, everything and everyone are elementals in a sense. Everything is powered by belief, his example being that it is more difficult to notice people who are down on their luck when you are at the same parties as them—they sort of fade into the background.
Not all of the stories in this collection fit comfortably into my framework. Two in particular—"The Camping Wainwrights" and "On the Sighting of Other Islands"—are quite different, and another, "Taking Care of Myself", is science fiction rather than fantasy but also deals with questions of identities. That being said, those first two stories certainly fit in with the title: the former is, surprisingly enough, about camping and family tribulations; the latter is told in a collective voice by the inhabitants of one island on a sea of moving islands. All of the stories in Journeys are weird in the sense that they are not quite grokkable the first time around—there are certain twists in the Highlander's narrative style that make the stories feel very original—but those two stories in particular among the weirdest.
I guess what I'm trying to say is that two of the intertwined motifs that seem most prevalent in Journeys—alternative worlds where magic has replaced or remains a rival to technological progress, as well as stories where the use of magic leads to a personal crisis of identity—appeal very much to me. So if the rest of the Highlander's work is like this, I look forward to reading more of it. Looks like this edition is sold out on the Subterranean Press website, so unless they print more or you can pick up a copy used, you'll have to be content with finding these stories elsewhere as you can. Alone, none of them really stand out, but together they form a very unified corpus of works. For a new reader like me, Journeys was a good introduction. Although I obviously can't say for sure, I suspect fans of the Highlander will find it familiar and comfortable.