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Freedom & Necessity

by Brust & BullBrust & Bull

hardcover edition

To get right to the point: Freedom & Necessity is astonishingly good.

In October of 1849, Richard Cobham receives a letter from his missing- and-presumed-drowned cousin James, informing Richard that James is alive and in hiding, only slightly the worse for wear, and without any memory of the two months since his apparent death. While they puzzle over James' present circumstances, his cousin Susan is attempting to unravel his contradictory past with the advice of his step-sister Kitty. The novel consists of their letters and journal entries and the occasional newspaper clipping.

Brust and Bull both have a history of creating narrators who are fallible or unreliable, and the epistolary format allows them to play games with what the characters know, and what they're mistaken about, and what they're willing to reveal, and to whom. I nearly went cross-eyed keeping track of who was taking which liberties with the truth, and trying to approximate that truth by adding up all the different versions and dividing by the number of viewpoints. Every time I thought I had figured out what was going on, circumstances would peel away to reveal yet another conspiracy.

Most of the characters seem to be much more interested in philosophy than I am, and the only points where the story faltered were their discussions of the nature of Trvth. I would have found these less dull, I think, if I had more than a nodding (and reluctant) acquaintance with Kant and Hegel. The authors do pull off the impressive feat of writing about the struggle of the underclass without ever indulging in rhetoric about the sorry state of the proletariat. They also avoid the cardinal sin of spoonfeeding information to the reader in letters whose recipients already have that background. (Any author who writes a sentence that begins "As you know" ought to be brained with his own keyboard.) As a result, much of the context has to be pieced together from offhand comments.

It's not that difficult to find wonderful stories, but it's rare to find one this full of wonderful sentences. The writing is clever and full of amusing idioms, and each correspondent has a unique voice. The supernatural elements of the story are rather low-key, unless you count the speed and reliability of the mail. But the story is never mundane: There's lots of galloping through the night with loaded pistols in each pocket, skulking about in snowy alleyways, clandestine meetings in desolate but insufficiently deserted saltmarshes, and the diversionary use of chickens.

If you like Brust's Vlad Taltos books but not The Phoenix Guards, you may find Freedom & Necessity too wordy or Byzantine. I loved it. It's a complex, unpredictable story full of characters who are fascinating even when they're being unlikable. I particularly recommend this book to those who enjoyed the clever writing and charm of Caroline Stevermer's A College of Magics or Pamela Dean's Tam Lin.

Faithful Richard,

And that's for you, for flourishing Hume at me; here's the Devil quoting Scripture, indeed! You must give my rationality its due now, however. Were I of a mystical bent, my present condition might drive me to madness. Failing that, it would certainly cause me to write the most tiresome sort of letters. Or do I pride myself on a reticence I have not achieved? Beside your letter, as empirical and sensible as any Rationalist might pen, mine seems full of "a host of furious fancies." Well, I am resolved to let our mystery spin itself out as a philosopher's experiment. If I am a madman in a rational world, I have the consolation of sound philosophy; and if I am sane in a world of supernatural morality and intangible motive force, I will at least have my wits to treasure.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
March 1997

hardcover edition
Publisher: Tor
Date: March 1997
ISBN: 0-312-85974-0
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 444
Price: US $25.95, Canada $36.95

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Sep 2001 / CMS