In her smart and enjoyable novella, “Brother’s Ruin,” Emma Newman takes a familiar concept—the schooling of people with magical powers—and finds a fresh angle on it.
In 1850’s London, the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts looks for new mages, people who are born with magical ability. When a mage’s powers manifest, British Law commands that the family offer up the child for schooling. Failure to inform the authorities incurs a severe punishment. Untutored mages run the risk of becoming “wild” and a threat to society.
Charlotte Gunn is a talented illustrator who has magical talent, but keeps it hidden. She wants to continue her career as an illustrator, marry her fiance and support her family.
As her father’s financial debt threatens the family’s well-being, he sees a possible solution in his son Benjamin’s possible magical abilities. If Benjamin passes his magical test, the family will gain a financial windfall proportionate with his magical abilities. However, his magical powers are weak in comparison to Charlotte.
Charlotte attempts to help her brother pass his magical tests, solve her father’s debt problem (that she herself had an unfortunate hand in creating), and keep her own latent powers hidden from the testers. Charlotte’s relatable character makes this novella work: she is a strong, capable woman of many talents with a firm commitment to her family. She hides her true self, trying to live an ordinary life, when she has been given extraordinary abilities.
The larger Victorian world, where a magical society has risen alongside the rest of the British Empire, is briefly sketched out. Magic’s power serves British industry and the Empire, but Magic is also a clear threat to the British upper class. More revelations and details will have to wait for further installments, and there are some intriguing directions Newman can take her world.
That said, this is essentially an origin story that feels like chapter one of a longer book. By the end of this novella, alliances and villains are established, and it’s easy to see the possibilities of future adventures.