Mar. 19th, 2017

sawyl: (A self portrait)
The ever wonderful Emma Newman has a excellent new gaslamp fantasy novella out. Brother's Ruin, which takes place in a version of Victorian London where the industrial revolution is powered by magic rather than steam. The story is clearly a curtain-raiser for a series but that doesn't mean it is isn't a delightfully fun read which more than serves its purpose of leaving me eager for more.

Charlotte Gunn has two significant secrets. Firstly, despite being Victorian and female, she has managed to carve out a successful career as an illustrator. Secondly, in a world where people with magical talents have to join the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts for the greater good of the British Empire, she has concealed her abilities because she wants to get married and live a normal life. Whilst in town to show off her book to the her brother Ben, the pair see an innocent child forcibly acquired by the Royal Society's Enforcers for the crime of being an undeclared latent magus; something that stresses the danger that Charlie is in and the risk she poses to those around her should she be discovered.

With these few quick sketches, Newman establishes her world with admirable clarity. We see how the familiar rules of Victorian morality confine the sexes to their appointed roles, but we also see the differences: the way the Royal Society can step outside those boundaries and make anyone they recruit into a figure of public adulation. We also get an immediate feel Charlie, who offers to help the baker after her son is taken away and who is carefully solicitous of her brother's frail health, but who remains determined to set her own course through life.

Arriving home to find a money-lender on the family doorstep, Charlie is distraught and immediately sets off for Whitechapel to investigate Anchor Financial Services. Upon discovering the office in a slum dwelling, Charlie learns from a neighbour that the place is notorious: people go in alive and come out in coffins. A quick visit to her fiance George, a registrar of births, marriages, and deaths, confirms the cluster of deaths, all of which have been signed off by the same doctor. Her mind in a whirl, Charlie returns home only to be faced with yet another shock: her father has called in the Royal Society because he suspects they have a latent magus in the family.

The Gunns, a solidly lower middle-class family, are classic members of the Victorian precariat, living without a safety net of savings, forcing Charlie's father to take out a secret loan to cover the unexpected expenses of Ben's time at university and his sudden illness and return home. Consequently, it is not hard to see why her father might see the Royal Society as providing a means of salvation: latents undergo testing to determine the area of their abilities, with their families receiving compensation from the college that agrees to take them on; should the latent show talent in more than one area, the colleges may attempt to outbid each other for the new apprentice, paying more than enough to wipe out the Gunn family's debts.

Fortunately for Charlie, she discovers that her father believes that Ben is the magus and has brought him to the Society's attention. Ben, determined to do his bit to support the family despite his weak health, has convinced himself that his limited abilities — he can increase the size of a candle flame — are sufficient to join the Society. Acutely aware of the need for money, Charlie offers to help Ben ace the tests to get more money out of the Society and to draw their attention away from her.

We then get the arrival of three magi and a neutral referee in charge of the testing. The three each represent a college of magic: William Ledbetter, a bluff northern industrialist, of the College of Dynamics is concerned with heavy lifting; Lillian Ainsworth, sympathetic and pleasant, is head of the College of Thermaturgy and specialises in the management of heat and energy; and finally Thomas Hopkins, of the College Fine Kinetics, whose interests are in delicate mechanics and clockwork and fine magics, and who is also something of a polished, dandified flirt. Needless to say, with Charlie's help, Ben more than impresses all three of the testers, even going so far as a damage Ledbetter's equipment — something which delights the magus, both because he believes that it shows Ben's prodigious ability but also because it means they've caught him before he loses control of his powers; something the Society constantly stress as a reason why all latent magi are required to join their organisation.

The rest of the story follows Charlie as she helps Ben and tries to come up with a way to keep her father out of the clutches of Anchor Financials. Thomas Hopkins, who possesses a wily intelligence and ability to see to the heart of things, seems to see through Charlie and her deceptions but choses to do nothing about it. Despite being clearly opposed to whatever is going in Whitechapel, Hopkins refuses to act — implying at couple of points that he isn't nearly as free to act as Charlie believes he ought to be as a member of the top tier of the Royal Society — but instead offers Charlie just enough knowledge to solve things for herself.

Brother's Ruin is a fine book with an good setting and a finely drawn cast of characters. Charlie makes an intriguing lead and Hopkins proves to be a good foil for her. Of the rest of the cast, Ben is particularly interesting. After acing his tests, he becomes convinced that he can live up to the standard set with Charlie's help and accepts the highest financial offer despite it being a poor match for his true specialism. It's also possible to suspect from the title that while Brother's Ruin may mark the start of a new and positive phase of Charlie's life, it puts Ben on the path to bad things given his almost certain inability to live up to his promise.

Having very much enjoyed the opener in the series, I'm really hoping for more set in the world of Industrial Magic.


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