2017’s Weaver’s Lament is the second volume in Emma Newman’s Industrial Magic series. The first instalment, Brother’s Ruin, was reviewed here.
Responding to a mysterious summons from her brother Ben, Charlotte Gunn ventures north to Manchester. Does he need magical assistance? After all, he passed the academy entrance exam with flying colours only because Charlotte used her considerably superior levels of magic to cheat for him. He made it through the course, but now he must be facing real life challenges.
Charlotte finds Ben wrestling with what he insists must be a den of trade unionists and socialists infesting the textile factory where he has been assigned to provide magical support. Unless Charlotte and Ben can expose the rascals, Ben’s advancement up the ranks of the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts may come to an abrupt halt.
Charlotte adopts the guise of a poor girl looking for work and finds a position at the factory. It’s a hard life: the work is dangerous, pay is poor, beatings are frequent, and workers’ lives are typically short. Just the sort of environment to lead the weak-minded into wild-eyed socialism.
Charlotte does not find a nest of radicals. She begins to suspect that her brother’s problems are caused by a latent (an unregistered, untrained magician) among the workers, a latent using their talent to protest factory abuses. Charlotte is (technically at least) a latent herself, not having registered with the Royal Society. If she interferes with the worker-magician, Charlotte risks exposing her own abilities and facing severe punishment. But if she leaves the unknown latent at large she is putting innocent people’s lives at risk.
On closer examination, the factory seems to be haunted. Learning why will expose the darker secrets of Britain’s magic-industrial complex.
Too many steampunk and gas-lamp fantasy works are so distracted by the shiny metal gears and nifty parasols that they lose sight of the fact that for every member of the middle and upper classes there were probably three or four people in the working class. The wealth of the handful at the top depended on subsistence (or less) wages for the masses at the bottom of Britain’s caste system. Safe working conditions would have been too too costly (in the eyes of the upper classes). It was sad, really, that so many children were crippled or died in the factories and mines, or clemmed (starved) to death during slack times when workers were laid off … but it was also providential that workers had so many children.
Newman eschews a sun-lit, nostalgic view of industrial realities. Her Victorian factories are unpleasant and dangerous even without the risks posed by protest magic. The women with whom naïve, sheltered Charlotte briefly works are well aware that their working conditions will doom them to short unpleasant lives— but they are so poor they have no choice but to accept their dismal lot. (Unions and union organizers are persecuted.)
Unlike certain fantasies where the magicians live in their own little world, hidden from the muggles, Newman’s mages are very much part of the upper strata of British society. This short work reveals how completely the Royal Society of Esoteric Arts has embraced upper-crust values.
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