Genre: Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Tor.com on March 14, 2017
My thanks to the publisher for providing me with a digital review copy. No compensation was provided for this review, and all opinions are my own.
The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts.When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.
But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.
When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.
Brother’s Ruin is the first in a new gaslamp fantasy series by Emma Newman.
BROTHER’S RUIN is the first novella in a new series that promises inventive historical fantasy, relatable characters, and an undercurrent of mystery and twisty political schemes. While some readers may find the beginning of the story slow, fans of historical fantasy will adore the attention to historical detail.
Charlotte Gunn is many things: sister, fiancee, daughter…and a keeper of secrets. She flouts convention as an accomplished professional illustrator using a male pseudonym, but even more scandalous than that, Charlotte is a Latent. An untrained mage with latent ability, Charlotte avoids detection by the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts by using her magic only very sparingly. The Society has many informants throughout England, helping them to forcibly conscripts Latents into their ranks to serve crown and country; while the families of Latents are compensated handsomely for their loved one’s service and abilities, those who are found harbouring Latents face criminal charges. So when Charlotte’s brother Ben’s name is put forth for the Royal Society, she’s understandably quite shaken.
Although we don’t get a lot of information on the magic system in BROTHER’S RUIN, I’m intrigued by the details we do see. Mages in the Royal Society train in one of three colleges: Thermaturgy, Dynamics, and Kinetics. Typically mages have aptitude in one or two of the colleges, but some rare magi have ability in all three; representatives from the Colleges test Latents and then makes offers to them, and people accept a College based on their interests (and the compensation offered). When Ben submits himself for testing, we meet a number of representatives from the Royal Society and they are pretty dang sketchy. Their presence puts Charlotte on edge, making her fear not only the outcome of Ben’s test but also her own discovery.
At the same time that Ben is preparing to take his magical test, Charlotte discovers that her family is in financial ruin. With her father in danger from a shady debt collector, Charlotte takes it upon herself to try to plead her father’s case. But when she visits the collector’s firm, Charlotte discovers that her father’s financial woes may very well be connected to the Royal Society…
Emma Newman has a talent for including the social conventions and attitudes that dictated life at the time without bogging down the story too much (at least, not according to a detail-lover like me). From hiding her career to caring for her ill brother to trying to save her father, Charlotte is every inch a character that I respect and admire. She constantly sacrifices for her loved ones and she isn’t afraid to stand up to authority when she feels it’s necessary, and she’s got a strong moral center. Basically, I love Charlotte and I can’t wait to see what she gets up to next. So far I don’t have much of an opinion on the other characters – aside from Ben, who I found a bit whiny and grating – so hopefully we’ll learn more about them in the next instalment.
This novella ended up taking quite an unexpected turn and I couldn’t be happier about it! BROTHER’S RUIN is the set-up for what I fully expect to be a great series, and if you like historical fantasy with feminist undertones, you’ll definitely like this one.