LitStack Review: Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman

by S.B.

Brother’s Ruin
Industrial Magic, Book #1
Emma Newman
Release Date:  March 14, 2017
ISBN 978-0-7653-9396-8

It’s probably not politically correct to illustrate something literary by using a television reference, but I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful TV pilot Emma Newman’s first book in her Industrial Magic series, Brother’s Ruin, would make.

This first installment hits all the right notes. The environment of mid-1800s London is glorious in its “gaslight” detail with hansom cabs, muttonchops, crinolines and currant buns. The characters are well defined, especially Charlotte “Charlie” Gunn, a tenderhearted young woman who looks forward to marrying her fiancé and starting her own family. But Charlotte’s life isn’t as simple as it seems: her family is struggling financially, her beloved brother, Ben, suffers from an illness that has circumvented his studies at university, and her own talents as an accomplished illustrator must be marketed under an assumed name so as to not embarrass her family with such an unladylike endeavor.

Yet this London also has a decidedly different bent, as evidenced by the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts, a powerful agency made up of magi who utilize highly specialized knowledge and mysterious elements to affect industry, commerce and the sciences, complete with a terrifying police force known as Enforcers, only tangentially answerable to the Crown. The Society retains the right to conscript individuals – willingly or not – who show an affinity for magical ability. The identification of a magically inclined person, known as a Latent, is considered to be in the best interest of the populace as undisciplined magic can flare out of control. But even though families are compensated for the loss of their loved ones (usually youngsters), training for a Latent is intense and potentially dangerous. If they survive the obligatory years of instruction, these persons, without exception, are expected to “do their upmost” for the Empire; their own personal desires – marriage, family, careers – are secondary.

So it’s not surprising that Charlotte has been hiding her keen magical ability for years. Not only does she love George, her fiancé, and dreams about the day that they can be married and start a family, she also loves illustrating and takes great pride in her professional success, even if her brother Ben is the only person who knows the true identity of the artist Charles Baker.

Yet when financial ruin threatens the family, uncovering a desperate ploy by Charlotte’s father and initiating another by her brother, Charlotte must act in clandestine and dangerous ways in order to ensure the family’s integrity while still maintaining her own secrets. It doesn’t help in the least that she has come to the attention of Magus Thomas Hopkins of the college of Fine Kinetics, or that he is charming and “quite simply the most handsome man Charlotte had ever seen.”

What follows Charlotte’s initial impulsive actions is a tale of murder, manipulation, and political intrigue that may even affect the inner workings of the Society itself. At every step, Charlotte must rely on her talents, and her quick wit and intelligence, to stay one step ahead of virtually everyone. Even then,  in the end she must entertain an offer that, while unconventional, risky and certainly fraught with peril, might just be one that she simply cannot refuse.

And… scene.

And so we have the explication out of the way, the environment sumptuously drawn, and all the characters in place to implement what promises to be an entertaining and exceptional new historical fantasy series by a master storyteller. And just as wonderfully comes the realization that not everything yet to come is a given – there are plenty of “will she or won’t she” scenarios for Charlotte to potentially cross, lots of “what if’s” that may or may not lead off into surprising directions. Even the endgame itself is not yet clear. But if Brother’s Ruin is any indication, it’s going to be an exceedingly fun ride, no matter where author Emma Newman decides to take Charlotte, and us.

I do know one thing: no matter where this series goes, I’m going to be in it for the long run.

~ Sharon Browning

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