So there’s this girl I’ve known for about half of my life. She’s been foisting books on me for most of that time. Sometimes that works out really well; she threw a comic fantasy at me by a new Tasmanian author once, someone called Tansy Rayner Roberts, and that’s turned out ok. At other times, I have been less… enthused. Because much of what she has directed me to has been romance.
(Long time readers of this book, cue the eye-rolling.)
Mea culpa: I have been a member of that set who poo-poohed romance as a genre. I have been dismissive of the covers and presumed they genuinely represented the contents; I have dismissed romance as not worth reading; I have dismissed the people who loved reading it. The fact that some of my friends enjoyed reading it confused me no end, because how could they be part of that group? I dismissed it as mere escapism… even as I bared my teeth at people who did the same to me over reading science fiction.
I am not proud. I am still getting over this attitude. And what both makes this attitude bizarre and helped me get over it was, at the time grumpily, actually reading most of the books I was directed to… and realising that they were well-written. Yes there’s crap romance; there’s really crap SF too. This should be no surprise. Also, I finally admitted that I quite like good romance aspects to my SF&F, and that that is okay. Part of my problem had been dealing with rather anti-girl and anti-feminine aspects of my own character (this is something that’s years in the discarding).
Anyway, she gave me Freedom and Necessity, and… the world changed.
The aforementioned friend recently sent me a copy of Freedom and Necessity which she rescued just for me, thinking I should read it again. Oh, how I love this book.
It’s 1849, and the convulsions that threw Europe into confusion in 1848 – attempted revolutions all over the place – have mostly simmered down. The Chartist movement in England (wanting outrageous things like manhood suffrage, paying politicians – so you don’t have to be rich to stand for election – and a secret ballot) has also mostly been contained. James Cobham wakes up at a rural pub with, he writes to his cousin, no memory of the last two months, during which time he has been presumed dead by drowning.
The entire novel is constructed via letters and a few diary entries. This does mean an occasionally improbable concession towards memories being excellent, but also raises the intriguing possibility of unreliable narrators all the way through. Also, the friend pointed out that reading it on the days the letters are written is both a fascinating and excruciating experience – the latter because the urge to keep reading is just. so. strong.
There are four main letter-writers. James; his cousin Richard; James’ step-sister and Richard’s paramour, Kitty; and Susan, also a cousin. The family is aristocratic in that way that doesn’t entirely make sense for a modern Australian – they’re not dukes, but they are wealthy and landed. James has been the family’s black sheep for a long time and clearly has a dubious past; Richard is something of a dilettante and scandalous for living with Kitty; Kitty seems flighty and wilful, at least at first; and Susan is sensible, determined, and intimidatingly modern.
Susan is my favourite. Susan is on visiting terms with Friedrich Engels.
The plot wheels between political machinations, dastardly plots of a political and a personal nature, family in-fighting, pseudo-druidical secret societies, fairly in-depth philosophical arguments, and falling in love. The fact that it is written as letters between different people means there are four distinct voices, with their own personal ambitions, hang-ups, and secrets; people don’t have all the same knowledge at the same time; and sometimes letters don’t get to their intended recipient at the hoped-for time, leading to… well. You can imagine.
I love the romance aspect; I love the historical aspect; I love the thriller aspect. There are serious arguments about Hegel that leave me bewildered. This book is delightfully well-rounded, and I am so very thankful to Kate for giving it to me so I can read it again and again, and loan it to Very Special People.
(Kate, by the way, is the creator of incredible jams and chutneys from local Tasmanian ingredients. If you’re keen on suchlike, search her out on Twitter – @justaddmoon – seriously awesome! /end plug)
You can get it”> from Fishpond!