Freedom and Necessity

by Steven Brust and Emma Bull.
26 March 1997


Christina Schulman
Jo Walton
Sean Eric Fagan
Miscellaneous comments

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From: (Christina Schulman)
Subject: Review: Steven Brust & Emma Bull: _Freedom & Necessity_
Date: 3 Mar 1997 05:44:43 GMT

_Freedom & Necessity_ by Steven Brust and Emma Bull
Tor hardcover, March 1997

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

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 

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.

%A   Brust, Steven
%A   Bull, Emma
%T   Freedom & Necessity
%I   Tor
%C   New York
%D   March 1997
%G   ISBN 0-312-85974-0
%P   444 pp.
%O   hardcover, US $25.95, Canada $36.95

Christina Schulman
SF reviews at
"And so even then I told the other children that Disney's _101 Dalmations_
 was entertaining but morally inchoate; it was as a preschooler that I first
 began to use words which I could neither pronounce nor understand...But
 even as a child I realized that while the life of a critic would never
 be easy, I would know the unique joy of always being absolutely right."
     -- Libby Gelman-Waxner, _If You Ask Me_

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From: (Jo Walton)
Subject: :Freedom and Necessity:
Date: Fri, 21 Mar 97 15:00:22 GMT

:Freedom and Necessity: really was worth crossing the Atlantic for. It
really is that good. In fact I liked it so much it's hard to be coherent
about it. This is an amazing book. If it had been written especially
for me I don't think it could have suited me better.

First what everyone who reads this group has known about it for months:
it's an epistolary novel, it is set in 1848, in England, it's by Steven
Brust and Emma Bull. 

Beyond that, well, it has a plot. An extremely convoluted and fascinating
plot that is revealed slowly as the book goes on, a plot that kept me
absolutely riveted to discover what happened next at every twist. This
plot concerns a family, a mysterious disappearance, strange arcane
happenings, Chartism, Engels and love. As well as this, it has characters.
Such characters - such wonderful rounded characters that live and 
breathe so that they feel like real people and, by the end of the book,
like real friends. The people writing the letters are more than merely
distinct, I could almost forget that they weren't real people. F&N also 
has style - the language, the description, the general form is quite
incomparable. It is a joy and a delight to read. 

There are all the little treasures one would expect of such a book - 
there were places that made me shout with laughter, there's a beautifully
subtle Devera appearance and there's what's probably the best sex scene
I've ever read. 

In short, this book is a mature novel from both Brust and Bull. They are,
both of them, here at the absolute top of their form. This is the best
thing I have seen from either of them, and they are both writers of whom
I think extremely highly.
There are not many faults. The characters move around like NorAm people
and not like British ones - British people _never_ just _go_ anywhere,
still less the sort of distances people dash about in F&N. We don't,
and didn't a hundred and fifty years ago, go about the place casually.
The authors don't make mistakes with geography (unlike most NorAm authors
writing about Britain - most recent painful example Feintuch's :Voices of
Hope:) this is purely a psychological thing. I also have a very minor
quibble with the end, can't say more without spoilers, but it relates
to this and may just be me being picky and sensitive. Other faults, well, 
I can't think of anything. I really adored this book. Possibly
I appreciated it more than someone less familiar with the period would. 

I would suggest that everyone rush to their nearest shop that stocks it,
buy it and read it immediately. If this means flying to Toronto, by all
means do that. (And thank you to everyone who offered to send it to me
instead, I do _really_ appreciate it.) 

Incidentally, would someone like to explain exactly why it is considered
fantasy and not a historical novel? The fantasy elements are extremely
downplayed, to such an extent that I'm not all that sure they were really
there, that there was anything that couldn't be explained rationally, I

Jo   - - I kissed a kif at Kefk - -
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx contains Blood of Kings Poems:
14 of mine, 6 of Graydon's, 1 of Browning's
...and a cheerful song about the end of the world

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From  (Sean Eric Fagan)
Organization   Kithrup Enterprises, Ltd.
Date           Wed, 12 Mar 1997 03:29:50 GMT
Newsgroups     rec.arts.sf.written

[ Note:  I would post this to, but the last four times
I'd tried to post a review of a book there, it never appeared.  Since the
moderator seems to have disappeared, and the co-moderators never replied to
my queries, I am no longer posting to that newsgroup -- sef ]

I'll try to keep the spoilers down to a minimum, but they are not completely
avoidable.  Summary:  not a book I cared for.

For several years now, Steven Brust has been on my "Buy on sight, no
questions asked" list; Emma Bull was likely to get on it, as well, if she
continued writings books as good as _The War for the Oaks_ and _Finder_.

Alas, F&N was a blow to that run.

F&N is not necessarily a fantasy; it is more historical fiction, perhaps a
historical romance.  While there are some books in that genre that I've
enjoyed, it is not, by a long shot, what I expected from a collaboration
between the authors of, respectively, _Agyar_ and _War for the Oaks_.  And
that coloured my opinion.

Also, F&N takes place in 1849 or thereabouts, and, frankly, 19th century
Britain doesn't interest me a whole lot, nor does the history of the
Socialist movement in Europe.

The two remaining blows against the book were plot, and style.  The story is
told through letters written between a small group of extended family
members (with occasional journal entries, letters from other individuals,
and the occasional newspaper clipping).

While this starts out interesting (it was quite fascinating seeing bits of a
larger plot emerge from the letters, buried in the normal, day-to-day parts
of the letters), it grew tedious.  Not dreadfully -- I did finish the book,
after all -- but this was the first Brust book since _To Reign in Hell_ that
I did not read in one setting.  (In fact, it has taken me five days.)  Also,
the style breaks down fairly quickly, and one of the letter writers reverts
to doing classic narrative -- which uses far more details than I would ever
put in a letter.

That leaves plot.  As I said above, the story is not stricly fantasy --
there are some fantastic bits going on, but they can generally be explained
(and, in fact, are done so by one of the protagonists!).  By the time the
story got going, however, I was strongly reminded of Tim Powers' _Last Call_
(I think that is the book).  Not because of specifics, though, but because
of tone, and the general feel of the bigger plot.  (Now, mind you, being
compared to Powers is not a bad thing, and this is not, by a long shot, the
same.  But some aspects of it are very similar.)

This is not a *bad* book.  I don't think Bull, let alone Brust and Bull,
could write a bad book unless a deliberate attempt at such was made.  But it
did not interest me a great deal, and I found myself wanting to get it over
with, so I could just put it down finally.  (That I didn't is proof that it
wasn't a *bad* book.)

If Brust wants to go the way of Guy Kay, and write historical fiction, more
power to him.  But I won't buy his books, then.  (Yes, it's prejudice on my
part, and, as I said, I *have* read hist. fiction that I've enjoyed a great
deal.  But it doesn't excite me enough to call my bookstore every day for a
week to find out if the book has arrived yet.)

As an aside:  both Steven Brust and Iain Banks seem to want to experiment
with prose styles.  Banks has chapters set in different timelines, without
making that clear until the very end, or has his characters narrate in a
thick Scottish brogue, spelled phonetically.  Brust has written his Khaavrenromance novels in a style reminiscent of Dumas.

I mentioned _Consider Phlebas_ to a friend (a published author, and, I will
point out, my favourite author at this point), and his immediate response
was, "An author shouldn't get in the way of telling the story!"  (I pointed
out some cases where he played some tricks with the time setting of
different sections of a story, bouncing back and forth, however.)

To some degree, I am forced to agree.  At the least, that's what was going
through my mind while I was reading F&N:  "Is Brust so bored with writing
fantasy that he has to play with different styles in order to be interested
in it?"  I realize that's unfair, and I do understand the desire (sometimes
even the need) to use different styles in telling a story.

But sometimes it just gets in the way of the story.

Freedom and Necessity
Steven Brust and Emma Bull
ISBN 0-312-85974-0
Tor Books, hardcover, 1997
444 pp.

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From: (Jo Walton)
Subject: Re: :Freedom and Necessity:
Date: Sun, 23 Mar 97 15:47:46 GMT

In article <5h1omp$> "P Nielsen Hayden" writes

> Jo Walton ( wrote:
> : First what everyone who reads this group has known about it for months:
> : it's an epistolary novel, it is set in 1848, in England, it's by Steven
> : Brust and Emma Bull. 
> 1849.  The distinction is crucial, if you know your European history.

Oops. Typo. That it is 1849 is indeed essential for a number of reasons.
> : Incidentally, would someone like to explain exactly why it is considered
> : fantasy and not a historical novel? The fantasy elements are extremely
> : downplayed, to such an extent that I'm not all that sure they were really
> : there, that there was anything that couldn't be explained rationally, I
> : mean.
> "Considered fantasy" by who?  If you search for any such assertion on the
> book's jacket, you will search a long time.

I meant considered fantasy by people on this group, actually. All the 
unspoilered comments I'd seen about it here seemed so absolutely sure 
that it was fantasy, I wondered if I was missing something.
> I think it's fantasy...but it's several other things as well.  Genres and
> forms are not always exclusive of one another.

That's fair enough. 

I _LOVED_ :Freedom and Necessity: - I would say it is one of the best five
books I've read in the last ten years. (:Cyteen:, :Permutation City:,
:Possession:, :F&N: and something that hasn't been published yet.) I
really liked the element of uncertainty there about the fantasy. I admire
Brust and Bull (and indeed you as their editor) for getting away with that 
ambiguity and not nailing the thing down dead. I hope it has the success
it deserves. 

Jo   - - I kissed a kif at Kefk - -
xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx contains Blood of Kings Poems:
14 of mine, 6 of Graydon's, 1 of Browning's
...and a cheerful song about the end of the world

From Wed Mar  5 13:49:24 PST 1997
From: (WShetterly)
Subject: Re: Freedom and Necessity
Date: 28 Feb 1997 09:39:18 GMT

Kate Nepveu wrote:
>Does this mean I was wrong about James and Richard?  Ah well, it was
>only a guess...

I missed your original message. If you said Emma wrote James and Steve
wrote Richard, you were correct.

>>Devera watchers should note that she appears in Emma's FALCON. It's very
>>short, with a very passing mention, more a tip of the hat rather than
>>another clue to Devera's nature.

>I don't think I've ever heard this mentioned before (I don't recall it
>on the Devera web page...)  Now I have to go dig the book out of the
>basement and look for it...

It's a very brief appearance. I only recommend this if you're looking for
an excuse to reread the book.

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