‘“Thems what go in there like this”—the woman held a hand up, fingers pointing at the sky— “come out like this”—she tipped her hand until the palm was horizontal.’ (Loc 316)
In an alternative London in 1850, the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts is recruiting raw, untrained magicians. And they are prepared to pay families handsomely for such talent. Benjamin Gunn and his sister Charlotte appear to have some magical capabilities and one of them is brought to the attention of the Society. This novella by Emma Newman tells the first part of their story, paving the way for more books in what is billed as “a new gaslamp fantasy series” by the author.
Brother’s Ruin is a short and entertaining novella which builds an interesting world around its characters. It’s Victorian England with magic, although Newman refrains from depicting magical battles in the vein of the Harry Potter books. The magic in this story is more restrained.
“I’d like you to ignite the wick without the use of any tools or assistance of any kind. You’re not permitted to touch the candle, but you may look at it. Do you understand the task?” (Loc 1256)
The characters are well fleshed out, if a little stereotypical at times: the strong-willed daughter, the nice-but-frail brother, the well-meaning yet foolish father, and the plain-speaking, rude villain from up North. This sounds dismissive but Newman does breathe life into these characters, and I wanted to know what would happen to them next. The brother began to annoy me after a while, but then isn’t that a sign of good writing; the words on the page provoking an emotional reaction in me, the reader?
There is a second plotline about some mysterious disappearances in the neighborhood which may or may not be linked to the Royal Society. In an attempt to aid her family, Charlotte becomes mixed up in this intrigue, leading her into a dangerous world which lurks just under the surface of “proper” Victorian society. Newman ties the threads of the story together as we approach the end and leaves the reader hungry for more.
Overall, this was a light, enjoyable story which was fun to read but over too quickly. It feels like Newman used this novella as a set-up for the main story that will follow later this year. The depiction of magic is intriguing and reminded me a little bit of Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell. The dialogue is a touch corny at times, and a character or two may annoy some readers, but I had a good time following Charlotte’s journey.