How Freedom and Necessity was described to me by Anastasia: An epistolary novel set in Victorian times, with magic!
What I pictured: Sorcery and Cecelia
The primary topic of the first forty pages of Freedom and Necessity: Hegel, I swear to God. You know, the philosopher. And his concepts of idealism.
So, yeah. Me and Freedom and Necessity got off to a bumpy start.
Luckily, I was on the bus and had nothing else of interest for my eyes to rest on for the duration of the bus ride, which meant that perforce I read past the first 40 pages and on to the more interesting bits.
James Cobham, unloved son, much-loved cousin, and passionate idealist, has drowned. Or at least, that’s what everyone in England believes. When his older cousin Richard receives a letter from the supposedly dead James, his whole family is plunged into a world of conspiracy, terror, and possibly magic. (Though, if I can save you some anxiety, there’s not really any magic. There are just some people who believe in magic, as some people did in Victorian times. (And of course as some people still do now.))
If you can get past the Hegel, Freedom and Necessity turns out to be pretty great. Shortly after James’s initial disappearance, his cousin Susan sets out on a quest to find out all about his past. She’s in love with him (claim her family members; she denies it), and ferocious investigation into his murky past is the method she’s plumped upon of handling her feelings about his (supposed) death. Meanwhile, Richard — who is living in sin with yet another cousin, Kitty — sets out to find out what on earth James is up to and what kind of trouble he’s gotten himself into. The cousins are working at cross purposes for some time, though they fairly quickly realize that they’ll work better as a unit, and they start to share information. (Though they still hold back some information from almost every letter they send; these are people who love each other dearly and want to keep each other from worrying.)
Susan’s a terrific character. I love to see a female protagonist who’s exactly as brilliant and bloody-minded as her male counterpart. Susan’s too clever to be put off by James’s typical grim-faced-male-hero tactics of trying to keep her out of danger by being extremely mean to her. She sets out to discover how she can assist James with the murderous bastards (possibly several separate groups of murderous bastards) who want his head on a platter, and before too long, James finds himself depending on her aid. When he needs something done, he’s able to say, Susan, do this thing, and feel confident that it will be done. And the greatest thing is that this is a life Susan enjoys (probably more than James does).
In sum, be prepared to skim past some droning on about philosophical ideals to get to a cracking good story set in the mid-1800s. Don’t hold out for magic. Most of the schemes are actually about politics. But they’re still good.