In quiet command of his theme and with the relaxed self-assurance of a sophisticated story-teller—whose prose is as fluid and smooth as even the most style-conscious reader could wish for—Ian R. MacLeod takes us to a peaceful, agrarian world in “The Master Miller’s Tale” (from F&SF, May 2007) where wind-borne magic’s dying days meet head-on the birth of a would-be steam-powered, mechanically progressive industrial revolution. Clashing cultural viewpoints are mirrored on the individual level through the eyes of the main character, Nathan Westover, son of the master miller of grain whose highly respected, generations-old grain mill sets magestically atop Burlish Hill, and to which all in the village send their grain to be milled. Following his father’s passing, young Nathan becomes the new Master Miller. This is his story.
The full story is worked through masterfully, with an artistic symmetry and sense of closure rarely attained in all but the very best short fictions. The brief opening segment calmly sets the stage for what is to come—it is but historic prelude; MacLeod uses a removed, distancing voice to pique reader interest immediately for it imparts, quite gracefully yet simultaneously, through tone, voice—and the subsequent mood invoked—of something once nostalgically remembered (Burlish Mill and the way of life it once represented) and what is now naught but crumbled ruins via the passage of time and a bygone era, but can also be received as a piece of history viewed, or remembered, from what could be seen as an historian’s—or story-teller’s—wistful perspective; the pastoral gone passé. This seemingly benign introduction serves as subliminal counterpoint to the story’s human, down-to-earth, sometimes tender, sometimes tense, emotional and violent expose, which chronicles the whys and wherefores, the dual emotional and ideological forces at play with which Nathan, the new Master Miller, must cope.
And then we have the magical component which ties everything together, manifested in the cloaked, enigmatic figure of the wind-seller. As did his father before him, Nathan purchases different kinds of wind to power the mill when there is none. These magical offerings come in the guise of bits of rope, wood, hair, or other material oddment where different kinds of wind have been captured, specially knotted to enhance its power. With the drop in business due to the rise of the steam-powered mills, Nathan can no longer afford the wind-seller’s product. The wind-seller’s onstage appearances are few; his presence is used primarily as a bookend effect surrounding the main story. His final appearance is fitting, for it gives detailed closure to the entire piece as well as offering a flicker of hope that maybe a captured lock of Fiona Smith’s hair, and the special wind it contains—grasped from Nathan’s outstretched hand—will be put to proper use.
Ian R. MacLeod’s “The Master Miller’s Tale” shows how effectively a short work of (less than trilogy-length) fantasy, when rightly told, is able to portray on a personal, individual level, such over-arching crises as the dying of one way of life and its struggle to survive against the onslaught of another. Highly recommended.