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Book Review: Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull

This week, I read Freedom and Necessity by Emma Bull and Steven Brust, which had come highly recommended by fans of speculative fiction. From the book blurb:
"It is 1849. Across Europe, the high tide of revolution has crested, leaving recrimination and betrayal in its wake. From the high councils of Prussia to the corridors of Parliament, the powers-that-be breathe sighs of relief. But the powers-that-be are hardly unified among themselves. Far from it . . .

On the south coast of England, London man-about-town James Cobham comes to himself in a country inn, with no idea how he got there.

Corresponding with his brother, he discovers he has been presumed drowned in a boating accident. Together they decide
that he should stay put for the moment, while they investigate what may have transpired. For James Cobham is a wanted
man―wanted by conspiring factions of the government and the Chartists alike, and also targeted by a magical conspiracy
inside his own family ....
"
In Victorian England, James Cobham dies in mysterious circumstances, but then resurfaces to life in equally mysterious circumstances. Cobham then goes into hiding, and we discover a sinister trail of disappearances as the Chartist Movement in London tries to usurp power for the workers from the rich and the titled. Cobham sets out to discover who is trying to kill him (not so much of a mystery) and how they did so (the bigger mystery), even as a class struggle rages across England.

There is no doubt that the writing is extremely well-researched, with a flair for historical writing similar to Wilkie Collins and Doyle and so forth. Both Emma Bull and Steven Brust are veterans of speculative fiction and they both bring their flair to Freedom and Necessity as well.

However, the book is told in the epistolary fashion, with which I have very little patience. I like to read about action while it is happening, not reading the truncated version afterwards. IMHO, the letters in this book are slow and meandering, and limited to Cobham and his three relatives, including his love interest, Susan Voight.

The letters do contain many philosophical discussions about Hegel, Hume and Hobbes (and throw in Marx and Engels too), which is all very well. But these discussions crop up at odd moments, like when you just have been kidnapped or other such lurking peril. As a lawyer, I am familiar with these philosophers, but as a reader, I was frankly irked by with the ill-timed musings. If the authors used this device intentionally to keep the reader on tenterhooks, they failed in my case.

The book has been praised for its radical theme and settings (this is Industrial Revolution in England). And that part is true -- "freedom" is at the core of the book. Cobham's means of getting freedom is by removing class restrictions, and Susan's means of getting freedom for women is by saying no to the confines of marriage. From that angle, both characters succeed in their own ways.

But there also lies my biggest problem with the book -- that Cobham's goals of freedom are more fully realized than Susan's. It is not that the book is sexist, but there were so many cliches and stereotypes that I was quite disappointed with the whole premise of "freedom".

For instance, Cobham's role in the book revolves around thwarting and punishing his wrongdoers (all the while discussing bigwig philosophers). But Susan's role seems to be limited to finding out more about Cobham, a.k.a., the man with the beautiful mind. Susan's life doesn't burn with revolutionary ideas as such, rather it revolves around Cobham's revolutionary ones. What does Susan passionately want for herself, we will never know.

Susan also, of course, has "French" roots, which may be why she is so very liberal and wears trousers and has short hair in Victorian society (*rolls eyes*). But for all her talk of independence,
[Spoiler (click to open)]
she is pregnant out of wedlock by the time the whole book ends. Was it really necessary to add this aspect to the plot?
I suppose in the mid-1800s, this is to be expected, but were there no other ways of noting this reality, especially in a book about historical fantasy fiction? I felt that having a Susan in the book was merely an agency for populating the book with more letters, and not for creating a protagonist in her own right.

That being said, the background of magical conspiracy and intrigue, and of course, the flounces of period literature make the book worth its while. If you like epistolary novels, you should certainly give this one a try.

Rating: 6.5/10. Entertaining.
Tags: 6.5stars, books, reviews, scifi&fantasy
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