Tag Archives: epistolary fiction

Freedom and Necessity revisited

Kate Nepveu, who I think has a link on my sidebar, though I have no idea whether it is still a valid link, suggested that we do a group read of Freedom and Necessity. The idea being, well, it’s an epistolary novel, and we have all these dated letters, let’s do a read along like that one guy did with Dracula last year, or that other guy is doing with Moby Dick soon[1]. I had read the book before, but remembered almost nothing except for sense memories of the characters doing the writing, all of whom I was enamored of at the time and expected to be again.

No suspense: I am still enamored of these characters. The story is… fine? I think it holds up better under months of tension, and even then would not hold up without the strength of the characters. That said, I liked the story plenty well when I read it all in a row, so maybe the delay was harmful in that respect. It’s not like it was familiarity breeding contempt, since it’s been 15+ years and I remembered, as I said, almost nothing.

Arguably, the rest of this review is spoilers, so probably don’t read it if you could be reading the book instead.

Anyway: Kitty is delightful but underutilized, James is a cipher (even when he isn’t, if you take my meaning, absent one glaring exception), Susan is a) great all around with the exception of b) still kind of a cheat of a character[2], and Richard… Richard was actually the star of the book for me, on this read. He started out as a pampered, bemused dilettante, and ended up as someone who was capable of loving and respecting people for who they are, not for what they brought to his life. Even people who don’t own country estates, which for a wealthy British man in the 19th century seems to be saying a lot.

And I mean, okay, since many of the characters started out great, maybe the one who had to grow into it shouldn’t be the star, but… I have read the book before, little though I remembered plot details. So between that and spreading it out, I for sure had more time to focus on character development than I might otherwise have done. So you see.

It was pointed out to me that there is sequel bait in the book, and man would I read the shit out of a sequel. So if Steven Brust and Emma Bull are listening out there, which they are not, I’m just saying, you already have your first sale.

[1] Soon then, currently now.
[2] If your novel is epistolary, and then you give a character an eidetic memory, you just end up writing a novel chapter instead of a letter.

Freedom and Necessity

I think I may be getting bad at this. At least, lately I’ve been at a loss for descriptive words. In this case, my lack is for how to describe Freedom and Necessity, other than to say I liked it. I did, unquestionably, despite being of an insufficiently philosophic mind (or at the least insufficiently grounded in the basics of philosophic thought) to understand all of the historical nuances of the debates around Hegelian logic. …see, and this is exactly what I mean. Although Brust is very good at writing books that make me feel inadequate to fully appreciate them, that’s no excuse for me to make them sound like dry treatises with dense and well-disguised themes when I could as easily and far more approvingly describe them as rousing tales of adventure and skullduggery. So, y’know, bad. At this. (Also, I’m disregarding Emma Bull’s contribution to my enjoyment, but that is only because I’ve read nothing else by her and as a result can’t really put together in my head what that contribution was.)

So, I grabbed this book because of how Steven Brust is one of my buy on sight authors, these days. He is right to be, because of how everything I’ve read of his has a great authorial voice, humor that makes me laugh out loud[1], and plots that, though sometimes dense, always seem to hinge on exciting matters of life and death (and on occasion far more grave) that are guaranteed suck me in. As you might expect, this was just such a book.

Set in 1849-1850 England, this epistolary novel follows the loves and politics of a family that has just been struck by tragedy in the form of drowned James Cobham. Except that, two months later, he sends a letter to his cousin Richard informing that he is alive and without memory of his recent past. From there, the story quickly branches out to the addressing of that conundrum and a number of other family mysteries, the struggle between the proletariat and its oppressive masters, affairs of state, a magical conspiracy, blossoming love, and of course murder most foul. Allowing one of the characters eidetic memory combined with a penchant for writing letters long enough dam the Thames was perhaps overly transparent of the authors, but the unique and entertaining voices of all four main characters (one of whom cannot end a sentence to save her life) more than made up for that lone violation of my suspension of disbelief.

[1] I’ll admit here that I might seem to some people to laugh easily; to those people I would say that in fact I have a highly refined sense of humor, but choose to surround myself with people and things that activate it. So there.