Amber Tucker's Reviews > Freedom and Necessity

Freedom and Necessity by Steven Brust
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Dec 17, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: christmas-or-spring-break, shelf-of-honour, to-come-back-to, recommended-by-brad, historical, epistolary-novels
Recommended to Amber by: Brad
Recommended for: Whoever likes an invigorating adventure in reading
Read from December 17 to 26, 2010

** spoiler alert ** Composed of striking language and equally striking ideas, this book had me hooked by about page two. I loved the time-travel. I loved the adventure. I loved the philosophical debating, and wished I was well-versed in modern philosophy to understand more of it. I loved the romance, especially (OOPS, SPOILER) the contrast between Kitty & Richard's and Susan & James's. I loved the socialism. Heck, I loved the full-blown Communism. I loved the accumulating criticism of the occult, the Church, and the government that leave thinking people with nothing to depend on besides themselves.

For me, though, the most memorable part of the intrigue is the heroes who battle through it. James, Susan, Kitty and Richard – I hope that I'll someday know more real people I appreciate and admire this much. They remind me of the best people I already know. Brave, impetuous, insightful, stubborn, witty, vulnerable, strong all in their own ways, relentlessly real through 'their own' voices, so wonderfully articulated by their creators. Steven Brust and Emma Bull have transformed the way I think about characterization. As it would appear from my rating, I see this transformed view as a positive thing. Right? Well, it's maybe bad, in that I'm not sure if it's heightened my discernment or narrowed my mind. I have a new, incontrovertible yardstick by which to measure each literary protagonists I meet and it's going to make me a hell of a lot pickier. But I also enjoy the challenge of unravelling why they're such great characters.

It's partially the merit of the format. Letters and journal entries portray not only how the characters know themselves, but how they know each other; we see how they themselves, and their relationships, transform. We understand them differently, with the strangely distanced intimacy that comes of peering into somebody's personal life. Which is enormously stimulating. Traditional prosaic chapters in third-person or even first-person can't achieve that to the same degree. (The only thing that bothers me is wonder WHEN Susan, in particular, had time to write thirty-odd page letters, sometimes more than once in a day. And was the postal service really as efficient as it appears? That's my thinking, dull & practical. But since unlimited writing time seems to be an oddity with epistolary novels in general, I won't hold it against this one.)

The main four aren't the only ones to almost dumbfound me with admiration. Engels and Mary are fantastic; in a perfect world Brust and Bull would have written a companion novel about those two .... I had thought that Thomas Cavanaugh might end up sacrificing himself to rescue Richard midway through, but luckily I was wrong, as he played an even more satisfying role later on. My heart bled for Henry, because I recognize him – I think we all do – his exuberance and his naïve belief in immortality. I treasured even the briefest sketches, like the one of Marx: "... a good-natured lion that can take your breath away even in casual conversation."

So it was not only the exceptionally intriguing plot, but deep investment in the characters that sucked me through the story. I couldn't help feeling as edgy as Kitty must have, hearing of the action but helpless to affect anything. I was convinced, near the end, that her 'visions' were going to prove wholly irrelevant, and James was fated to die. James's death seemed unbearable, and yet "right" to me, believing the prediction was a simple matter of amassing clues.That he might live seemed too good to contemplate, until it actually happened. If you expected what I did, both the lead-up to the Trotters' Club confrontation and the against-the-odds triumph of the underdogs will awe you.
How silly was I? "Fate" doesn't exist in the written world unless the author declares herself God, and I should have seen from the beginning that Brust and Bull did no such thing. Their characters rule themselves, and THAT is why the characters enthral me. They are 'fated' only by the freedoms and necessities that they have chosen, and those which they choose throughout the novel. I'm not saying James "chooses" to live when he's bleeding from an arrow wound (though he does, and that has to be significant). I am, however, saying that nothing is inevitable in a world where human beings take responsibility for their lives.

We delude ourselves by scorning the failure of realism when James lives. "Literary correctness" does not have the power to claim him. Nor are any of us thrown without our permission into a quasi-Gothic universe, or one ruled by Fate, or by the conventions of literature. Such a universe, I would argue, is the one pressed on us by mysticism, politics and institutionalized religion. At the centre is James's fight against the demons of disempowering "Fate." His death would be his defeat, and the defeat of the novel's purpose.

At this point, I have two thank-yous to say. First is to Brad Simkulet, who lent this to me. He is only getting it back because I love and respect him, and because I know our conversations revolving around the book will be even more interesting after we've re-read it. I will buy a copy as soon as humanly possible.

A sheepish acknowledgment: this review is written, or at least guided in large part by my emotional response to Freedom and Necessity. I have tried to be logical, but it deserves more than "pure" logic, if there is such a thing. This book soared past my logical faculties and perched, preening, beautiful, in dim corners that don't lend themselves so easily to my critical flashlight. I count that as proof of its brilliance. I will be re-reading this – more than once, I'm certain – and I will edit/add to this review whenever I do so. Somehow the thought is strengthening, a definite literary challenge and joy that I look forward to. Thank you, thank you, thank you to the authors, for giving us this magnificent story.

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Quotes Amber Liked

Emma Bull
“It occurs to me to wonder: do I believe in any god, or even positively not believe, as James does? I believe in systems and methods. I believe in the beauties of philosophy and poetry. I believe that the work we do and leave behind us is our afterlife; and I believe that history lies, but sometimes so well that I can't bring myself to resent it. I believe that truth is beauty, but not, I'm afraid, the reverse. It doesn't seem sufficient to sustain one in life's rigorous moments. Perhaps I shall embrace Islam. Its standards for poetry seem very high.”
Emma Bull, Freedom and Necessity

Reading Progress

12/17/2010 page 98
12/20/2010 page 240
39.0% "Conspiracy theories!!! Now I know why Brad really likes this book." 4 comments
12/24/2010 page 411
68.0% "Thank you, Susan and James. That came blessedly sooner than I thought it might. Now please, let Thomas be sacrificed instead of James (just a guess...)."
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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Brad Your emotional response is perfectly appropriate, Amber. I am so glad you liked it. I love this that you wrote: "Their characters rule themselves, and THAT is why the characters enthral me. They are 'fated' only by the freedoms and necessities that they have chosen, and those which they choose throughout the novel." Exactly how I felt and still feel about this. I can't wait to get my copy back, though I am probably going to be forced into waiting to reread it. I am looking forward to seeing what you've done to it.

Amber Tucker Thank you. I'm glad you're glad I loved it. ;)

...I am probably going to be forced into waiting to reread it.
Why would you be forced to do that? Besides the petulant calls of the other books that wait on your shelf. Hmmm.

Brad Too many other things I need to read. I've a first reads book coming (YAY!), and other things I need to get through too. But F&N will keep for a while.

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