Brother’s Ruin bursts with the promise of an undercover lady spy who possesses secret powers and a talent for getting herself into madcap magi-political scrapes. The only sting is that this novella only has room for her origin story, and feels a bit like the pilot episode for a show that isn’t streaming yet.
In the Victorian London of Emma Newman’s novella, the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts quickly snaps up every young person who shows a talent for magic and inducts them into a strict apprenticeship, separating them from their former lives. To soften the blow, a mage’s family is given payment—but the amount offered by the Royal Society is tied directly to the mage’s talent. Only those with great power can expect to command enough to truly change their families’ fortunes.
Charlotte Gunn could use a fortune. Her artist father is deep in debt with shady mages, and her own secret earnings as an illustrator have been spent to pay for her brother Archie’s schooling. But Archie’s poor health has sent him home without prospects, and when their father witnesses an act of magic, he excitedly contacts the Royal Society to tell them that his son is a mage. Only Archie knows that the true power belongs to Charlotte, who carefully hides her magic so that she can continue with her life as an illustrator and soon-to-be wife.
Charlotte must uphold the deception to protect her family and her future from the Royal Society’s wrath, while simultaneously investigating the sinister money-lenders who are threatening her father with a supernatural punishment for defaulting on his debts.
This is the sort of gaslamp fantasy we have seen before, full of the usual trappings: dirty London streets, Victorian manners, and magic tied to complex clockwork mechanisms. Familiar tropes are rendered with competence, so if you like this sort of thing, Brother’s Ruin will give you what you want. If you are looking for something more original to innovate the genre, you may want to look elsewhere.
That said, Charlotte provides a relatable bridge into the story, as she manages to be daring and brave while maintaining a deep investment in the traditional family life to which many Victorian women of her class aspired. Her motivation always rings true, and her desire for a quiet marriage and security for her parents and brother is weighed charmingly against her frustration with all of them for being so clueless. The depth of her character is what truly stands out in this novella, and makes me curious to see what adventures she has in store in the next volume.
Caitlyn Paxson is a writer and storyteller. She is an editor at Goblin Fruit, and can sometimes be found discussing folklore and pop culture on the Fakelore Podcast or performing with the Banjo Apocalypse Crinoline Troubadours.