Steven Brust & Emma Bull
Freedom & Necessity
TOR Books 1997
In a letter, James Cobham tells his cousin and friend Richard Cobham that he's still alive, although sorely wounded, living secretly in a countryside inn. Richard, who recently attended his cousin's funeral after the tragic drowning accident in which he was supposed to have died is, quite unsurprisingly, surprised. But he agrees to keep James's state of existence a secret but for the closest friends - his fiancée Kitty, the daughter of James's father's second wife, and their cousin Susan Voight. James is still not safe, as they don't know who tried to kill him, or why. Not that there isn't reason for killing him. Quite the opposite, because James is a man with many dark secrets and connections. In the year of 1849, the year after left-wing uprisings spread all over Europe, the government is quite interested in Chartist leaders. But also different groups within the revolutionary movement have reason to fear the secrets James knows. And don't you forget the wide-spread aristocratic family itself, and the occult society his father is heading, the Trotter's Club.
The set-up for this novel is excellent, I would say. Revolutionaries, occultists, a few historical characters like Friedrich Engels and a lot of magic... But, hey, wait now just one minute! Where's the magic? In fact there is no magic. Labelling this a fantasy novel is merely a way for the publisher to sell more books to all the die-hard fantasy readers. This is just a historical novel written by two fantasy writers. And historical novels can of course be quite interesting, too, although I prefer novels with that extra magical spice added.
No magic being the first problem with this book, the way of telling the story is the second. This is a letter-novel, a collection of letters sent between the main characters during their struggle to learn what this is all about and in the end save James from the death sentence hanging over his head. In between the letters, there are substracts from the main characters' private journals and things like that. This is of course quite an inventive way to tell a story, often used in earlier centuries when sending and receiving letters were more common than it is today. But that it's been done before doesn't make it any easier to read, and sometimes it's quite frustrating reading a long discussion on Hegel's philosophy or Kitty Cobham's wandering thoughts when you really want to know what happened next. The authors are, from a literary point of view, doing a great job, weaving together a story from different pieces, in different styles, into a novel that works alright. Nevertheless I can't help wishing for some good old-fashioned story-telling, and the excerpts from Susan Voight's journal are really refreshing when you've read a bunch of letters.
The third problem is the authors' interest in German philosophy. A few remarks on Feuerbach's ideas I can find quite amusing, but long discussions between James Cobham and Friedrich Engels on the finer points of Hegel's Science of Logic isn't really that much fun.
After pointing out these flaws you might think I didn't like the book. I did actually put it away for a while, reading other books. But when I started reading it again about a month later, I still remembered the situation where I had put it away, and I found it quite nice to be back in England 1849. This is not an easy read, but if you got the time, the energy and the interest in the times it portraits, it can be a very satisfying read.
© Henriksson & Henriksson 1996.