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Freedom And Necessity by Steven Brust and Emma Bull

1/09/2010. Contributed by Ewan Angus

Buy Freedom And Necessity in the USA - or Buy Freedom And Necessity in the UK

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pub: TOR/Forge. 443 page enlarged paperback. Price: $15.95 (US), $19.95 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-76531-680-6.

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The first thing you notice when you pick up this book, 'Freedom And Necessity', is that its narrative structure is not at all what you were expecting. It's a Victorian-based novel following the rather vague plight of two related families and how they appear to be caught up in some sort of occult business.

Told in a collection of letters and diary entries, 'Freedom And Necessity' is a book that takes the unreliable narrator and times it by four. Told mainly by four related cousins: James, the heroic protagonist with the lack of memory who has returned from the grave and Susan, the female love interest who wholeheartedly is not in love with the protagonist. Then we've got Richard, the steadfast reliable gentlemen and cousin of the previous two and Kitty, the wife of Richard, best friend of Susan and the books seeming clairvoyant or an opium addict, depending on how cynical you feel whist reading the book.

Set during the chartist revolutions, the book is a subtle character piece that seems to delve more into what was socially unacceptable at the time than the supernatural it alludes to. With the story being told almost mainly by sceptical characters, its fantasy elements never really come to much, mainly due to the fact that the characters don't want to talk about them.

Following the apparent death of James, Susan sets off to find out more about her cousin and attempts to find comfort in his past in order to help her grieve. The unfortunate truth is that whilst he was a whole-heartedly honest guy, James was wrapped up in a lot of bad and illegal stuff. Mainly, the Chartist revolutions. As a ringleader, James discovers there is someone who plans to sell them out. They, however, get to him before he gets to them. He is then tortured and left for dead.

What follows is a not entirely coherent adventure novel told through correspondence. It's enjoyable yes, mainly due to its strong writing and attention to detail, yet it is a book in which pay-off is limited and the plot is lost in seemingly irrelevant plot points.

In terms of realism, however, the novel excels. It takes the unreliable narrator and gives each of the characters an individual voice and their humanity cannot be faulted. Detailed in the extreme, it describes each characters quirks and traits and really creates the idea that these people were real. It also builds its realism up by placing the fantasy on the backburner, choosing to deal with the repercussions of human acts as opposed to the otherworldly.

It might not be to everyone's taste, in fact its style alone will alienate many readers, however if you can look past it, there is a decent story here. It's just not as good as it could be overall. With its themes of communism, social values and historical tropes, this novel is a work of art. But like all art, it will have those who love and those who loathe it. I am ironically somewhere in the middle.

Ewan Angus

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