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Brief Review: Brust and Bull, Freedom and Necessity

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Steven Brust & Emma Bull, Freedom & Necessity. Tor, 1997. ISBN 0812562615

This is just a quick review of Brust and Bull's collaboration, Freedom and Necessity. Apparently published a half-dozen years ago, though I don't think I've had it that long, it's a paperback running to nearly 600 pages of reasonably-sized type. My paperback also had apalling, apalling spoilers on the back cover and a front page. I have excised those, removing the back cover with a utility knife and offending page by careful tearing. This is how much you don't want the plot given away.

For those who've greatly enjoyed Brust's exploits with Dragerea, or Emma Bull's fantasy work, don't approach this book expecting more of the same. Because this is a book of suspense, I'll not talk about the plot too much. Let me sum up. The year of the book is 1849, in Britain; the central players are the Cobham and Voight families, which a browsing reader could discover from the extremely handy family tree at the front of the book (which isn't the spoiler I cut -- that was a blubish monstrosity, iirc). The book, I can safely tell you, is largely done in the form of letters between characters, plus colour from the actual Times of 1849, and extracts from Friedrich Engels (yes, him) and Hegel. The forms never let up, except insofar as the letters include a fairly high degree of dialogue as well as a more reasonable element of narrative. This tends to break the frame once in awhile, when the book breaks back to the epistolary format from a conversation; some of the digressions are needlessly arranged to build suspense, and I found myself impatient at times to have them "get on with it!" Of course, that's just the sensation letter-readers have to have, and with one's dislocation from the action, missing of nuances, or knowing a fact where a reply has been delayed, that is a prt of the book.

Probably this book is either loved or hated by real 19th-century experts of various types. I felt often that if I had any better clue of what was the context, I would appreciate the situation better. On the other hand, a more exact feel for the style of the period would probably make Brust and Bull's approximations seem more anachronistic. And anachronistic is not, generally, a problem for the book; this was a period when modernism was really building up steam, ha ha.

Freedom and Necessity has serious lulls, in which a reader will say "haven't we done this once already?" It is, however, a decent book for those who're very patient and willing to delve a bit into the wilds of the Victorian era. Readers expecting the lush terrain of Bull's interiors, or the snappy pace of Brust's Jhereg or Phoenix Guards should set aside those expectations, and prepare themselves for a very different sort of book, or else for disappointment.

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