Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Book Review: Freedom & Necessity [1997]

Several years ago, my sister gave me a copy of Freedom & Necessity, which came up in my second Reading Roulette* draw, enabling it to come off the bench and into the game at last. The book is an epistolary novel from science fiction fantasy heavyweights Steven Brust and Emma Bull that takes place, for the most part, in 1848 England.

As the novel opens, James Cobham--presumed dead, but in reality having recently escaped from captivity--writes his cousin Richard to enlist his assistance in uncovering the mystery of his "death." Their investigation evolves to include their cousins Kitty (romantically involved with Richard) and Susan. The story is told through letters between the four principal characters and their journal entries, with a few scattered newspaper clippings and book excerpts for good measure. Once the plot really gets going, it's rare to find any of the four in the same place at the same time, which makes the format choice logical, along with the fact that it was written by two authors.

The four relatives are all members of England's upper class, but it's revealed early on that James has long been living a double life as a radical and Chartist sympathizer. The identity of his pursuers, and whether they would prefer his death or recapture, is in doubt for most of the book and could be one of several groups. As questions continue to increase in number, with few answers forthcoming, the four work disparately and together to gather clues and put together information from their family's past to unravel the events of the present before it's too late.

It's difficult to describe the plot except to say that it involves revolutionaries and political intrigue, cross-country chases, family history, romance, and a group of people practicing a druidical magic. There is a great deal of discussion of Hegel, much of which went right over my head. The epistolary format sometimes lends itself to rambling and reflective passages that would definitely frustrate a reader looking for continuous action. However, the conclusion was well-plotted and satisfactory.

Grade: B+

While not precisely fantasy, the book does play with some fantastical elements, especially where the character of Kitty is concerned. If forced to put it in a genre, I'd call it historical fiction. Susan's character in particular was a delight to read, as she uses the mysterious events as a launching point to exercise a range of talents that she was never able to access in her role as a lady:
I'm doing this mostly because it's opened wide a door to a room inside me that before I could only guess at by the light along the sill and through the keyhole. It's a room in which all those things in me that, living the normal life of a well-bred woman, I could never use--strength and speed and hardiness; command over my mind and body; respect for the language of my senses; a certain ferocity of the spirit--are not only useful but essential (146).
This book is definitely not for everyone. If you're not down with having Friedrich Engels as a supporting character, don't even bother. But if you're interested in mid-19th century English history, if you like complex characters with flawed relationships, if you don't mind the occasional philosophical ramble . . . this book is definitely a good choice.

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*Which project has been sadly neglected in my attempt to read as many 50 Shades of Grey readalikes as possible, but which is now back on track as if those three months never happened. In my attempt to get this book (begun in February of this year) actually read, I resorted to keeping one copy at work, one at home, and one in my car.

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