TBR Challenge: Freedom and Necessity

Gustave Wappers, Épisode des Journées de septembre 1830 (sur la place de l'Hôtel de Ville de Bruxelles), 1835

Cover of the novel Freedom and Necessity by Stephen Brust and Emma Bull

It was about darn time I read this book. It was sent to me about a year ago by the delightful Anna M, whom I follow on Twitter (@helgagrace). It had come out of her TBR pile after several years, and she graciously passed it on to me when I squeed about it. Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks was my TBR Challenge read two years ago, and I was excited to read another book by her (one of those fantasy authors I seem to have missed the first time around).

I won’t lie; this was truly a challenge. This is a 588-page novel, from 1997, in mass market paperback. I haven’t read one of those in quite a while; I missed my Kindle, especially the highlight and look-up functions. While I’m not sure this qualifies as a truly “big fat book,” it’s a lot longer than my usual reading material these days. More to the point, it is an epistolary novel — yes, all 588 pages are letters, journal entries, or news items. It’s a complex plot, with four primary first-person narrators, and it was definitely the most challenging ficion I’ve read in a wile. It was also a really good book, and I never had to force myself to go back to it, although it did take me more than a week to finish.

The book takes place in England and Wales in the last few months of 1849. The main protagonists are James Cobham, a sometime Chartist revolutionary whom family and friends believe dead by drowning, and his cousin Susan Voight, with whom he is obviously in love (although it takes him more than half the book to admit it). James is trying to figure out who might want him dead and why, while Susan is trying to keep track of him and help keep him alive. His stepsister Kitty, Susan’s best friend, and Kitty’s lover Richard, another cousin, are secondary characters who tell a lot of the story. The book is published as fantasy, and it does have hints of fantasy elements, or I suppose it could be considered alternate history, although I don’t know the period well enough to say how many liberties were taken. It has an intricate plot, as the four main characters try to figure out what is going on and then how to stop it, and this is made more complex by the epistolary format. It also is a book of elevated language and thought; Friedrich Engels is a character, and there are high-minded discussions of Hegel throughout the novel (this was where I wanted my Kindle look-up feature).

I don’t think I’m doing a very good job selling this novel — so far I’ve said it’s long, challenging to read, and full of philosophy. But it is also full of fun; Susan and James both have wicked senses of humor, and Richard and Kitty are just as funny, if in a slightly less skewering manner. It’s also full of adventure and risk; lots of hidden identity, undercover work, puzzle-solving, and several life-threatening situations. Events move pretty quickly, and there are few passages of time without action/narration — the reader lives the events almost at the pace of the characters. The plot twists and turns, and the letters and journals put the reader right there with the characters in trying to figure it all out. It is past tense, but immediate past, not the sort of past tense voice that comes when the whole story has already happened. This gives it a freshness and urgency without actually putting it in present tense. I admire the undertaking, and it succeeded for me.

This is definitely a novel with romantic elements; Susan and James, and secondarily Kitty and Richard, are important relationships that develop over the course of the book, and the reader very much wants them to end happily. The balance of that delighted me by the end. It’s also very much a book about being flawed and human, and learning to make the best of that; to forgive others, to forgive yourself, and to love and trust when it is warranted, no matter how much your trust has been abused in the past.