Brother's Ruin (Industrial Magic #1) by Emma Newman
Release Date: March 14th, 2017
It's London, 1850, and the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts is tasked to find all latent magic users and conscript them into their service for Queen and country. Great Britain is thriving, in no small part to its cadre of mages that are used for industrial and military purposes. After all, mages run the mills and keep all the clocks in the kingdom running at the same time. Families who identify and turn over their family members to the Royal Society's services receive an incredibly lucrative financial reimbursement from the government, enough to make any potential mage want to volunteer themselves in order to support their families. Those who try to hide latents, however, will find themselves punished, as untrained mages can become "wild" and dangerous. Not everyone sees conscription as a positive thing: some mages would prefer to live their lives with their loved ones, pursuing their careers or relationships which are forbidden to royal mages.
This is the world where our protagonist, Charlotte "Charlie" Gunn, finds herself in. She's a young woman whose illustrations help keep her middle-class family afloat. Her brother Ben is a university student, but sadly has been suffering from a waning illness that prevents him from pursuing his studies. In addition to her secret career (she submits her illustrations under a pseudonym so no one knows she's a woman), Charlotte is also engaged to be married. When Ben and Charlotte discover that their father is in debt to some seedy characters, Ben reveals a secret: he's secretly a mage. And because he sees his illness as a burden on his family, he tells Charlotte that he will willingly volunteer himself to the Royal Society, so that his family can receive money to pay off their debt and live comfortably for the rest of their lives. There's just one problem: Ben's power is very weak, to the point of being nonexistent. Charlotte is the real mage in the family, with an incredible amount of power. And she's been desperately trying to hide it so she can live her life the way that she wants.
Brother's Ruin is the first in a series titled Industrial Magic by Emma Newman. It has a solid premise and will definitely appeal to those who enjoy Victorian-era "gaslight fantasy." Our heroine is smart and talented, but goes against expected tropes by wanting to be live a normal life, settled down with her future husband as opposed to seeking out adventure. While the idea makes for a fun story, at times Brother's Ruin can be a very uneven read, as the first half of the book is slow to start. The payoff is in the second half, when we first meet the mages who come to test Ben in their home, one of which is an abnormally handsome fop who Charlotte gushes about incessantly, but who turns out to be a lot more than he seems. Meanwhile, a conspiracy begins to unfold in the background that threatens to harm Charlotte's father and destroy her family. The story ends with what we assume will be the setup for the future of the series, which will possibly be something a bit more covert than expected.
As I've said about a few other Tor short stories, some feel as if they're whittled down from a much longer book, and I often hope to see more than what's available. Brother's Ruin follows this trend but feels even more out of place since we know it's part of a series. The entire story feels like a prequel, prologue, or introductory chapter to the true story that will start to be told in later entries. It's a story I'm interested in, but the world and characters are still shrouded in mystery, so it feels underdeveloped.
While I felt that Brother's Ruin improved and left me intrigued for its future, I can't say that I'd recommend this story, at least not yet. I'd wait for more entries to appear and see how they fare, and then they can be consumed as a whole instead of piecemeal.