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.
Emma Newman has, alongside running the Hugo Award nominated Tea and Jeopardy podcast, written a portal fantasy fairy story series (with really dark fae and a strong Shakespearean influence) and a science fiction career starting with the publication of Planetfall in 2015 and After Atlas last year; now, she’s also making a play for gaspunk.
Brother’s Ruin is an interesting little book; it’s got a couple of themes running through it, and Newman plays with each of them interestingly, and the way they intersect. It’s also a very quietly incredibly subversive book; putting the punk back into gaspunk, as it were, Newman uses the book to question the established order of the pseudoVictorian world she’s writing, and by unsubtle extension elements of our own world (the parallels between a noble class and the wealthy plutocrats is pretty clear, for instance). There’s also a wonderful theme of female independence despite men’s condescension running through the book; Brother’s Ruin is really about Charlotte Gunn, after all, who defies all manner of social convention, but only ever on the sly, and using her femininity and the expectations of others to get away with it.
Charlotte is in fact a fascinating character. In some ways, Newman has written an almost typical Austenian heroine; satisfied with her marriage to a man who will make her happy and financially secure, and not wanting to draw too much attention. However, Newman hasn’t let it be that simple; Brother’s Ruin consistently sees Charlotte bucking against convention and tradition, and pushing against the boundaries placed around her female existence, while also pushing against the class and wealth system that causes so much povery and misery. The rest of the cast are less well realised, although they do still have their interesting elements, from the sweet and slightly oblivious George to Charlotte’s own family, with their quirks, her mother ripped almost straight out of Pride and Prejudice (and then made middle-class).
The plot is perhaps the least satisfying thing about Brother’s Ruin, although not in a negative way. There are two plots which run, connectedly, in parallel; the attempt to get Ben into the Royal Society, and prove his abilities, with Charlotte’s help, and an attempt to deal with an extortionist lender with dark connections pressuring Charlotte’s father. The first is relatively resolved in the book, and Newman has some nice touches of explanation in there without it feeling like we’re being infodumped at; people have misapprehensions corrected, or are given propaganda in both directions, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. The other plot strand is wrapped up in the specific but leads to a much larger plot, resolved unsatisfactorily but with good reason, and one that allows Newman further social critique in the book itself; there’s a very unsubtle lead in to future books in the series.
Brother’s Ruin isn’t going anything new, but it is doing some old things much better than they are generally seen of late: not since The Difference Engine have I read a steampunk book that so actively goes out of its way to deconstruct Victorian class values and by very clear extension critique modern society too. I look forward to seeing what else Newman plans to do with the series.
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