In an alternate 1850s era, the British Empire is flourishing as vitally as it did in our timeline, but from different base causes. Instead of the power of the Industrial Revolution providing the motive power for Monarch and country, the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts provides the competitive advantage for Great Britain to stand astride the world. But this society of magicians is a merciless one, taking every person with magical talent, whether they like it or not. Charlotte Gunn seeks to aid her family from financial disaster that her father is in by making sure that her brother’s talents are seen and compensated for. Oh, and in so doing, hiding her own deep, dark secret from the Royal Society: Charlotte, you see, is a mage too.
Charlotte, and her world, come to life in the Tor.com novella Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman.
Charlotte is the heart of this book, and is an archetype of a character that I have begun to recognize and look for in the author’s work. A woman caught between duty, responsibility, and a burning desire and need to forge her own destiny and path. A strongly grounded sense of responsibility to her family and friends, and add in conflict from all directions as a crucible for change and growth. Personalities are different across her heroines, but the basis ur-struggle that they face is one that has been less prominent in SFF until recently, and Newman brings these character concerns to light. As a secret mage who desires a husband on the one hand, and to save her family from ruin on the other, Charlotte is caught in an ultimately untenable position that forces her into some dangerous choices and decisions. The author’s sympathy and concerns for the social implications of her world are made plain and made manifest in how that world affects and oppresses her heroine, and that come across the page evocatively. In addition, it should be noted Charlotte is more powerful and more important than even she realizes, and I suspect that as in Newman’s other worlds, Charlotte may be a fulcrum for change of not just herself but the world around her as well.
The actual plot and length of story, then, in Brother’s Ruin feels and runs a bit short. This novella really is a lot of setup of Charlotte, her family, her world, her allies and antagonists. The novella really is a lot of groundwork for future storytelling, more so than actually story telling within the story itself. Mind, I am intrigued by the setup Newman is working on here. However, I think there could have been a bit of more meat on the bone for plotting and development on those lines; the focus on grounding Charlotte as a character and getting to know her overshadows plot events somewhat. The plot, as it does appear, though, even as it is less than what I would have wanted, does set up obvious lines of development and questions to be asked about how Charlotte’s world actually functions.
What we see is a world where the Industrial Revolution occurred, but with magic and magic users rather than the power of factory and foundry. The oppressive controls on those touched by magic reminded me strongly of the Psi Corps from Babylon 5. A character in that series fears the Psi Corps because she is hiding her gift, however small, and resents what the Corps will do to her if they find out, and resents the control the Corps have over its members’ lives. Charlotte could identify with that character so very well, as she refuses the constraints and boundaries that a life in the Society would mean. It’s a world and social setup that I find fascinating.
And in that vein, too, I would have liked to have seen more and learned more about how this world came to be, and when things developed as they did. Much like her Split Worlds universe, or her Planetfall universe, I am always curious as to the rest of the world. Even with the strong focus on character to keep the attentions and focus of a reader like me on the characters whose story she wants and needs to tell, I like to know more. What’s America like in this world? Canada? Australia? The rest of the world? Inquiring minds want to know! Gaslamp fantasy, with a not-so-quite-interconnected world, does make things from foreign shores a less pressing concern than, say, if this were a book set in a Steampunk Colonial Conquest era, but I am curious all the same.
But as mentioned above, the strength and power of this book are in its heroine, and her perilous position balancing family, duty, and her own desires and needs. It is that strength and power I hope to see Newman exploring in subsequent novellas and stories set in this world, and I look forward to reading them. Once again, Newman has created a world and a central character that I want to follow and learn more about.