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Sunday, October 29, 2006

Freedom and Necessity

*****+ Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust & Emma Bull. Historical fiction. Re-read.

I first read this about 4 or 5 years ago, and it blew me away. So when somebody mentioned it a couple of months ago, I decided to take the chance and put it back in my TBR pile, and see if I still felt the same.

I did.

Freedom and Necessity was written by two of my favorite fantasy authors, but it's historical fiction, not fantasy. It takes place in the mid-19th century, and is told entirely in letters and journal entries.

As the book opens, James Cobham is writing to his cousin Richard to inform him that he, James, is not dead. He has only vague memories of the past months, up until the time he arrived, ill and injured, at the inn where he's now working as a groom. Despite his lack of memory, he cautions Richard that he might want to keep James's resurrection quiet until they can discover where he's been and what happened to him.

Working parallel to the cousins is a distant cousin, Susan Voight. She's long been attracted to and fascinated by James, and with the news of his death, she's set out to discover his past--in particular, what happened when he'd disappeared before--in order, she tells herself, to find that he was just ordinary after all and exorcise him from her heart and mind.

Rounding out the main characters is Susan's best friend, James's stepsister Kitty, a devotee of spiritualism, who's "living in sin" with Richard.

They're all intellectuals and philosophers, though James has taken it further than the rest, and involved himself in radical political reform. (Friedrich Engels is a secondary character.) As the clues emerge, it seems that a combination of politics and the sinister Trotters Club is behind James's disappearance and the continued danger to him.

The clues are revealed slowly, in bits and pieces, and the reader has to actually interpret some of them. It's such a lovely novelty to not have everything spoon-fed to you.

In addition, there's a heart-wrenchingly intense romance between Susan and James, made all the better because they're both such great characters. Both strong, both extremely intelligent, both principled to a fault. Neither one gives the other an easy time.

It's a slow, demanding read, but it's also one to savor. Normally, I get impatient with slow reads, but not with this one.


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