All good things must come to an end, says a rather old proverb, dating back as far as Chaucer, and, in this particular instance, that means the Split Worlds series by Emma Newman, because this is the fifth and final volume which wraps it all up.
In my review of the fourth book, 'A Little Knowledge', last month, I freely admitted that I had no idea whatsoever how Newman was going to take care of everything in motion within one last book, though I now see that I had the key to it all in that review. It all comes down to finding balance, to which I unwittingly hinted by comparing the previous two books to 'A New Hope' and 'The Empire Strikes Back', which are all about restoring balance to the Force. Congratulations to the author for successfully keeping me in the dark, even if I came closer than I thought I did.
Now, to be fair, this is mostly because she built up plot strands over four volumes until they comprised a Gordian knot and then, just like Alexander, took a sword to them. We're so conditioned to following the standard conventions of novels that we might not (as I didn't) see this approach until it had already taken effect.
And, if you haven't read the first four books, please stop reading this and go back to do precisely that. Spoilers are inevitable here. For those who have caught upand by caught up, I mean that you've not just read the previous four books but this one toohere's a strong hint in the form of a reminder of the structure of the Split Worlds and of where we left off at the end of the last book.
The Split Worlds number three: Mundanus, the Nether and Exilium. Mundanus is our world, where we humans live. Exilium is the home of the Fae, a wild and mischevious race who have been separated from us by sorcerers to keep us safe. The Nether is anchored to Mundanus, not that we know it, and its inhabitants, the Fae-touched, live out their immortal lives according to the rules of high class society in 18th century Britain.
Cathy, who's Fae-touched but aches for escape from their society, has left her husband, the Duke of Londinium, and has taken refuge in Mundanus, in the warded home of the new Lord Iron, formerly her friend Sam. She wants nothing more than to bring the Nether into the 20th century, especially by bringing independence to women. Sam wants to use his surprising new position as the head of a multinational corporation to fix the environmental problems that the Elemental Court, to which he now belongs, have been causing. Max, the arbiter who survived the culls that populated the first few books, wants to continue to police the boundaries between the split worlds.
It's the mysterious Beatrice, the rogue sorcerer who murdered Max's fellow arbiters, as well as the sorcerers for whom they work, who has one solution to all these apparently separate problems and goals. She wants to remove all the ties between the split worlds and bring them all back together again, undoing what the sorcerers did centuries ago. Initially I saw this as just a wild vision of a wild character, who hadn't been given as many pages in which to grow as almost everyone else. Only here, when it was dangled in front of my eyes like a carrot, did I realise that it was the Answer.
Most authors who write about the fae, and urban fantasy is full of them, do so by either placing them into our world or behind a transitory boundary, so that whenever they choose to affect us, they absolutely do. What Emma Newman does here that's so radical is to do that at the very end of her series rather than the beginning. In other words, the Split Worlds aren't merely the place in which this series unfolds, they're the problem that's plaguing it and we solve that problem by removing the raison d'être for the series entirely. That's an amazing approach and I doff my hat to the author for having the sheer balls to attempt and pull off so fantastic a coup.
What's perhaps most amazing is that she also has the writing chops to do this without losing her characters in the process. To be fair, a number of them are left to flounder around when the metaphorical rug is pulled out from under them, trying to find a new place in a new world, but they're as interesting while floundering as they were in control. William Iris, who begins the book as the Duke of Londinium and Cathy's husband but travels a particularly wild story arc through this final volume, is only the best of many examples. I'm sure that many readers had their own ideas how to deal with him and I hope that they're all happy with the results.
I believe that it's fair to say that a number of principal characters here have believable story arcs that take them from heroes to villains or, at least, willing heroes to unwilling villains. That's another angle that I appreciated here. It's often said on convention panels that every villain is a hero in their own story and that's never been so overt as here, with William the prime example but Rupert and Beatrice both occuping places of note on that scale. It could be said that these latter two, while similar in this respect, are also polar opposites in that one does the wrong thing in the right ways while the other does the right thing in the wrong ways. There's so much to learn about the art of writing in this series.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book, just as I've thoroughly enjoyed the whole series. Newman is a huge talent and I'll surely seek out her succeeding work. She's published four volumes in a science fiction series called 'Planetfall', which seems rather interesting, as do the two books in a gaslamp fantasy series called 'Industrial Magic'. There are other books too, with at least one standalone novel and a collection of short stories. What's more, she hosts a Hugo Award-winning podcast by the name of 'Tea and Jeopardy'. I'm very glad that Diversion Books brought the Split Worlds series back into print and so to my attention, because I'd have been missing out on a heck of a lot otherwise. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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