It always feels good for this British ex-pat to dive into a British fantasy novel with its British history, culture and slang. It feels like going home.
'Between Two Thorns', the first in a series of five novels by Emma Newman, is something that, on the basis of this one alone, could become a new home. It's familiar but it's original and that's a neat combination of attributes.
This is very much a beginning book. We're here to set the scene, to set a few different stories in motion and to set a few characters on the loose with the obvious intention of connecting them up later so they can weave those stories together into one.
The main lead here is Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, who's a misfit. She was born in Aquae Sulis, not the Roman town that later became known as Bath but the Nether town that exists alongside our modern city, albeit a century or two earlier in its manners.
And here I should explain this universe. There are three worlds: Mundanus, the Nether and Exilium. Together, they're known as the Split Worlds, also the name of the series.
Mundanus is our world, contemporary to us, for all the good and bad that suggests. We only know our world, unless we've encountered those from the others. Well, except for the sorcerers and their minions, the arbiters, who are very much aware and tasked with keeping the worlds detached from each other. They're like the cops of the Split Worlds, keeping us safe from the fae.
On the other side of magical doorways, the Nether is a sort of delayed mirror image of Mundanus, home to the fae-touched, the so-called Great Families, and stuck a century or two behind. Nobody ages in the Nether, so they keep their children in Mundanus for a couple of decades until they grow into themselves, then drag them back into the Nether to be forever young and beautiful in a rigid high society that is as socially and technologically backward as it is beautiful.
The fae don't live with the fae-touched. They live in Exilium, for reasons its name suggests. Who knows what they get up to, but it's likely to be tricky and manipulative. Their most obvious function is to act as patrons to the Great Families of the Nether. Sorcerers call the fae 'parasites' and the fae-touched 'puppets', which should help to highlight how these societies work.
Cathy comes from a fae-touched family but she's hated it since childhood and her chief goal in life is to keep away from it, even if it means that she'll age. We meet her a few steps into her plan. She's persuaded her family to let her attend a university in Mundanus, from which she promptly vanished with the aid of a fae charm that keeps her hidden. As we meet her, she's almost happy, living and working in Manchester with a boyfriend called Josh, but, of course, that illusion of happiness is about to come crashing down around her.
She's found. And she's dragged back, almost literally, to the Nether, where she'll be wed to a fae-touched man in an arranged marriage that benefits both houses involvement. Then she'll spend the rest of her long, un-aging life, as dutiful wife and mother, doing what she's told and looking pretty at the many dances and social engagements that constitute the Season. Oh, and without all the books and movies she enjoyed in Mundanus. Cathy's is a fascinating story, which will no doubt progress a great deal as the series runs on, but it's not the only one here.
Something strange is going on and an arbiter from Bath by the name of Max is the one who stumbled onto it. Investigating a set of missing women in London, he realises that the local arbiters are in on it and so are the fae. They're onto him before he knows it and, by the time he gets home, not in good shape, he finds that he's the only one left. All the other arbiters in Bath are dead and it's up to him to figure this out.
Yeah, there isn't anywhere near as much detail there for me to explore but it grows with the story and starts to connect with Cathy's too. It builds to the point where we get a satisfactory ending to this book, while still beginning to learn about where we're about to go in the next four.
I liked this a lot. It took me a few chapters to get used to it but, once I'd got that far, I needed to keep going. The conflict between cultures is always a fascinating one but here it's especially fascinating because it's one that manifests itself within time rather than space. Bath and Aquae Sulis are the same place, just on either side of the boundary that separates Mundanus and the Nether, but they're nothing like each other. Of course, they serve not only as contrast but as torment for folk like Cathy, who loves one but finds herself stuck in the other.
Normally you might think that a disconnect like this would be resolved in a rapid fashion. Who would turn down all the modern conveniences we know so well that we fail to even think about how easy they make our lives? Well, the fae-touched would. They're ruthlessly old-fashioned and they like it that way. We would be vulgar and common and not worthy of mention.
This intriguing set-up for a series means that this feels rather unique. It isn't even easy to define its genre. Sure, it's fantasy at heart but, even there, half of it is urban fantasy and the other half more traditional, with the time we spend in Exilium high fantasy. The chapters in Mundanus are very detection-oriented, making this a mystery and even a crime novel of sorts. Those in the Nether are period pieces, even regency romances at points. Put all this together and you have something I haven't read before.
I like Cathy a lot, not least because I'm British and we always root for the underdog. She's a good avatar for us, even if we're not young and female, as she's forced into a life she doesn't want and we feel that deeply because we wouldn't want it either, even if it comes with inherent anti-aging. It's fair to say that most fantasy novels create worlds that we would like to visit, if not outright live in. That's not so much the case here. We're happy to visit the Nether only through Cathy and hope that she'll be able to get out again.
Will she? Well, come back next month for Any Other Name and we'll find out together. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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