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Freedom & Necessity    by Steven Brust & Emma Bull order for
Freedom & Necessity
by Steven Brust
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2007 (1997)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

As this absorbing and mysterious adventure opens, James Cobham has, for the last two months, been assumed drowned in an 1849 boating accident at a family luncheon. Now he writes to his close friend and cousin Richard to reveal the fact that he's still among the living (working as head groom in a Portsmouth inn) but has forgotten how he got there. The tale is written as a series of letters back and forth between major characters (the good guys that is!) in an era when letter writing was taken much more seriously than it is today, even in the heat of non-stop adventure and danger.

The two main players are James Cobham and his cousin Susan Voight, who have long had feelings for each other, but only knew the front that each allowed the world to see. In the time since James's supposed death, Susan has been steadily investigating his whereabouts and actions leading up to his disappearance. Correspondence is primarily between James and Richard Cobham, Susan and her cousin (and best friend) Kitty Holbourn (who's something of a spiritualist and also Richard's lover, and quickly ferrets out James' letters), but there are some back and forths between the others as well. It soon turns out that, by letting his cousins know he's alive, James has drawn them into danger too, something he deeply regrets.

The letters describe sorties - by James, Susan and Richard (Kitty mainly stays close to home and dispenses wisdom) into all levels of early 19th century English society, from upper class revels to encounters with common folk in rough inns. Gradually, in bits and pieces that come together through the letters, they discover secrets and horrors in the past history of this large extended family, as well as the fact that James is a different person from the one his cousins believed they knew, leading a desperate hidden life (shades of The Scarlet Pimpernel) for a decade. There's a villain from James's past, an angelic - and evil - femme fatale, the Chartism labor movement, early feminism, an occult secret society (the Trotters Club), murders, spies and government agents. Engels has a significant role and Marx a walk-on part.

Mystery and magic, politics and philosophy, danger and derring-do - it's all here, along with a strong dose of philosophy (in particular Hegel's Science of Logic is frequently quoted by several characters, and the title came from his comparison of freedom & necessity, quoted at the end). The back cover compares this excellent book to Susanna Clarke's more recent Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell, but I enjoyed it much more than the latter. Freedom & Necessity is lighter on magic and heavier on action, but with the same depth of societal and philosophical context. Though I read it on its original publication, I enjoyed the story at least as much this second time round.

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