No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Tuesday, July 01, 1997

Freedom and Necessity -- Steven Brust and Emma Bull

What manner of thing is this Freedom & Necessity? Is it a historical novel? a fantasy novel? Or what?

Well, some would say that any novel springing from a collaboration between Steven Brust (Cowboy Feng’s Space Bar and Grill, the Taltos series, The Phoenix Guards etc) and Emma Bull (Falcon, The War for the Oaks, Bone Dance, assorted Borderlands stuff) must be fantasy. I suspect it would be differently categorised if it had been written by other hands.

Have with you, at all times, iron that cuts, polished silver (a coin will not do), a sprig of mistletoe, and a loaded pistol.

The excerpt comes from early in the novel, just after James has contacted his cousin after two months of being given up for dead. Richard, who pens this cheery warning in response, is later revealed to be living in sin with Kitty, who takes opium in the hope of finding the Shimmering Path, and has dreams and visions all over the place. But we shouldn’t judge people by the company they keep.

OK, how do we define fantasy? There are no magical beasties: no elves (there is a beautiful, mysterious, dangerous woman who travels around in a mysterious coach, but she's more nymph than elf); no goblins (there is one chap who is described as ‘inhumanly ugly’ early in the novel, but the next person to see him simply regards him as deformed). There are episodes which might be regarded as magical (I shall leave Kitty’s assorted visions, opium-driven and otherwise, out of this: dreams and visions are too commonplace to be of much use in classification). The bits where there might be magic, however, are reported with a refreshingly Enlightenment sensibility – "it was probably just the reflection of the fire", etc. James and Susan, at least, cling firmly to their Rationalist tendencies, and are far happier reforming the world over sherry with Engels than participating in obscure pagan rituals. … Oh yes, there are obscure pagan rituals, but no indication that they have any magical effect.

There’s certain plot elements that confuse me: I can’t decide whether the authors are being very obtuse and subtle, or whether the novel was originally intended to be more fantastical and the emphasis shifted as Brust and Bull became more at home with their characters. For example, early on James is given an iron ring which supposedly comes from the rector's housemaid but is in fact from the mysterious belle dame sans merci. Clearly (to those familiar with fantasy tropes) it is a token of magical significance. But we hear little more of it until near the end of the novel. James relates to Richard how he had the ring cut off by 'a blacksmith at Chandler's Ford', because it became uncomfortable when his hand swelled up after a fight. Richard nods sagely (he is Into This Stuff) and indicates that the blacksmith, and his location, is very significant. Low-key, or simply picking up a dangling end? It strikes me that both authors know exactly what they're doing: one cannot help but feel, though, that it is probably wasted on a significant portion of their audience.

When I started reading, I picked up on the 'British folklore fantasy' elements [if it's any sort of a fantasy, it has roots in British folklore and paganism as much as anywhere else] as a matter of course, because I think I assumed that it was a fantasy novel. After the first section of the novel, the 'fantastical' elements diminished, yet I'm sure that until fairly near the end I was half-expecting a magical denouement. Well, the climax of the book is intended (by the perpetrators) to be a magical ceremony, but whether it actually is, is another matter.

And I confess that it's a relief to read something where no one makes anything happen by waving their hands around: the fate of the world is not decided (except in James' Chartist tracts): there are no talking animals (I counted): and the fact that it's set in what I can recognise as 'the real world' does not involve a suspension of disbelief.

Let me expand that last point a little. Of course all (most?) novels involve a suspension of disbelief, because their premise is (usually?) that the author is relating a series of true events which just happen to have escaped our attention. The average fantasy novel deals with the reader's inclination to say 'that didn't happen' by setting itself in a different world, or at least an alternate version of our own. F&N is not set in an alternate world, unless you accept that hackneyed old chestnut I occasionally dredge up about every novel constituting an alternate world of its own. F&N is set quite firmly within the bounds of our own history: there's even a clever little aside when James tells Susan that there's a reference to him in Flora Tristan's collection of reminiscences on Britain in the 1840s, Promenades Dans Londres [I haven't been able to check the validity of his quotation]. The authors use contemporary press cuttings, which don't always seem to have much to do with the text of the novel: on flipping back to them, however, you usually find something of significance. As far as I can tell, there is nothing in the novel (apart from some of its characters) which contradicts history As We Know It.

Incidentally, there wasn't any magic in Ellen Kushner's acclaimed 'fantasy' novel Swordspoint, either. What made that fantasy? It was set in a made-up world which owed something to 18th-century Europe, but was clearly not.

Freedom and Necessity reminds me of Sorcery and Cecilia (Patricia Wrede and Caroline Stevermer, Ace Books) because of the use of the epistolary form, and the informed and witty use of history. Unlike Freedom & Necessity, Sorcery and Cecilia is a frothy Regency romance set in an alternate world where magic works. I suppose the two do share a few other aspects: elements of the swashbuckling romance รก la Sabatini, for one; a sense of humour; likeable characters: that sort of thing. Freedom and Necessity is a deeper book: the discussions between James and Engels on the emancipation of the poor, and between James and Richard on the nature of thought and reality, are by no means lightweight: they're solid philosophical tracts, and they do lend something to the plot – they're not (all) just there to show us how intelligent the characters are. There's a true Enlightenment mentality to it: a rational, humanitarian outlook which sits oddly, at times, with Kitty's Romantic sensibility.