I was drawn to Brother's Ruin, by Emma Newman, when I saw it on Netgalley, partially because of the premise, but mostly, I'll admit, because her book Planetfall got such great reviews, but I never got a chance to read it. So hey, I thought, I'll get out ahead of this new one! But I have to say, I think this was the wrong place to start.
I'm on this novella kick lately, partially because I like the size--you know it's going to be a quick, tight story, but not in the spare fashion of a short story. I just don't think I'm a short story person--I always want all the details laid out for me. No, when I want short, I want a novella, but sometimes that falls short of what I'm looking for.
The premise here is promising--Charlotte is a young woman who is happily engaged and becoming quite successful in her work as an illustrator (under a pseudonym, of course, because it would not be respectable for a young woman to have a career). Her brother, with whom she's very close, suffers from ill health, so her income, in addition to those of her parents, helps keep the family afloat.
When her brother begins to suspect he has magical abilities, it looks like it might be the family's financial salvation; though magical training is compulsory for anyone with talent, their families are generously compensated. But bringing the testers around endangers Charlotte in a way her family doesn't know--she's been hiding her own magical abilities to avoid having to give up her fiance and career.
Now she has to make sure her brother passes his tests while keeping herself hidden--and uncovering complicating secrets about the politics of the city's maguses.
(Is maguses a word? Let's roll with it.)
So there's my back cover copy. I have to say, a lot of this book is like a breath of fresh air. Charlotte frequently considers keeping secrets the way people in books do to keep the plot moving forward, then blurts out what she was thinking anyway. First, I find this relatable; second, it prevents Plot By Unnecessary Withholding, which I'm pretty much done with.
I loved how close Charlotte was with her family, and I thought this book did the best job I've read in a long time setting up why someone with special powers might not want to seize hold of the opportunities that come with them. I've always been kind of skeptical of "I just want to be ordinary" as a beginning and end to a person's motivation. But the things Charlotte has to lose are laid out quite well here, and the mystery and possible discomfort that would come with the opportunity are made pretty obvious. The premise felt grounded in a way that a lot of similar stories don't.
The drawback here is the pacing, I think. There's too much setup, and then it ends all in a rush. This actually felt like the first third of a book, and it should have continued into Part 2, rather than ending itself. From the broader pacing (I was shocked to realize that I was closing in on the end, and that they were going to wrap everything up in what felt like just a few pages) to the scene-by-scene details (the domestic descriptions were important to evoke what Charlotte's life is really like, but there was just SO MUCH time spent on the family getting the house ready for fancy guests), the pacing felt off.
As the first third of a novel, this worked swimmingly, and I will definitely read what comes next (because oh yes, this is just the setup for a bigger story). But I was pretty disappointed to get to the end--not in an eager to move on way, but in a "that's all there is?" kind of way. A sad feeling to be left with, even if it's a good problem to have.
(Thanks to Netgalley for the free copy for review.)