Steven Brust and Emma Bull,
Freedom and Necessity
(Tor, 1997)

The idea of reading an epistolary novel is daunting enough, never mind writing one, but Steven Brust and Emma Bull have captured the spirit of the form with style in Freedom and Necessity.

Set in Victorian England at the close of 1849, the story begins with a letter from James Cobham to his cousin Richard, two months after James' presumed death by drowning. James has no recollection of what has transpired in the intervening two months, but his letters eventually reveal a need for secrecy and subterfuge. Meanwhile, Kitty, James' stepsister and Richard's lover, is in correspondence with another, more distant cousin, Susan Voight, who is determined to track down the events leading up to James' drowning. When she finds him very much alive indeed, she enlists herself in his cause.

Using letters and journal from James, Kitty, Susan and Richard, as well as actual articles from the London Times, Brust and Bull create a taut and gripping plot packed with intrigue, secret societies, gun running, social movements, murder and more.

The various plot threads range from the political to the prosaic, and they intertwine without a gap. The authors maintain the multiple layers of the plot clearly and cogently, and the reader is easily immersed in the story which, incredibly, transpires over three months. The main characters are vividly portrayed both through their own voices and the descriptions in letters about them. It is fascinating to see the subtle nuances of their personalities rise through the characters' portraits, transforming them from "stock" characters into people so real you would recognize them if you saw them on the street.

Furthermore, the authors maintain the integrity of the different characters' voices. One wonders what Kitty could do with e-mail! And if Susan's photographic memory strains credibility at times, it is a small step to suspend disbelief for the sake of find out what happens next.

Freedom and Necessity is a fantasy, complete with a brooding hero on the run, a spirited "princess" sharing the adventure, a wicked "king" (not the monarch), secret identities and assorted assistants, although perhaps Friedrich Engels may not be your idea of a fairy godmother. Near misses and last-minute escapes abound until the final, satisfying resolution. With its rich, complicated plot and complex characters, this is a book to try to savor, but don't be surprised if you can't put it down.

[ by Donna Scanlon ]

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