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Clif's Book World

Adventures from reading books captured within short reviews.

Freedom and Necessity - Steven Brust, Emma Bull The title of this book could lead one to expect it to be about philosophy or sociology. Instead it's an epistolary philosophical political historical novel with some mystery and romance thrown in for good measure. (I borrowed parts of this description from another review). On balance it seemed more of a mystery than a historical novel, so I think I'd prefer to change this discription to be a mystery with a some elements of a historical novel thrown in.

The entire novel consists of letters and journal excerpts written by four protagonists (who are prolific writers) plus an occasonal letter written by others and a sprinkling of actual excerpts from the London Times of 1849. The language used has the wordy verbosity typical of 19th Century writing. Reading this book provides an experience of what it must be like to read a collection of period research material before it has been assembled into a coherent historical narrative. It was this unusual format that enticed me to read the book.

The blending of the fictional story together the non-fiction news clippings lends an interesting panache to the story. It provided a historical motif to the novel that included some appearances by historical characters, Friedrich Engels and Karl Marx being the most famous. The writings of Feuerbach and Hegel are also given their due attention. The story takes place in the mid 19th Century England when there was a movement in the United Kingdom and Ireland toward political and social reform. This movement was called Chartism taking its name from the People's Charter of 1838. It involved issues that polarized the socially liberal folks from the more conservative. Sound familiar? Some of the characters in this book have had a past of being militant Charter supporters and therefore are considered to be enemies of the state by others. Apparently, being a Chartist in mid 19th Century England was the equivalent of being a Communist in the USA during the 1950s cold war era. As the story progresses we learn about a secret organization, a list of suspected informers, and of people being killed (or almost killed). These all combine to provide the suspense for the mystery's plot.

In case you're wondering, the title of this book comes from this quotation of Friedrich Engels.

One word usage in the book that I noticed was a reference to Wollstonecraft's Vindication of the rights of Woman on page 283. Then on pages 370 and 371 the word "Wollstonecraft" is used as an exclamatory expression. The use of this word as anything other than a person's name is something I've never seen before. Was it an invention of the writers, or was it a 19th Century expression? In the context used in this book, it means "You're a social reformer."

I considered the complex narrative a challenge to read. The unusually small font and long length of the book didn't help. Had a reasonably sized font been used I believe that the 444 pages for the hardback edition could easily change into 600 pages or more.

I became aware of this book from this review. This review, and some others, are extravagantly enthusiastic about the book. I'm not quite that positive. But I grant that it is a well written book.