BRIEF SYNOPSIS: A headstrong scion and an investigator discover dark doings in the outwardly genteel world of Bath’s secret mirror city.
PROS: A wide variety of interesting characters; intersecting stories: the wonderful feel of a larger world only partially glimpsed.
CONS: The ending of the book leaves perhaps too many dangling threads; ecology of the Split Worlds has some problems.
BOTTOM LINE: Accept the invitation to attend the season in Aquae Sulis.
Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver has been hiding from her rich and powerful family, wanting wanting to break free of the shackles she believes have been placed upon her. However, she has been hiding from the half-Faerie world her family lives in, trying to carve out a life in the mundane world. A life is threatened when she is discovered by the Fae Lord patron, and worse, that Fae Lord has a dangerous gift for her she dare not refuse — she might lose more than her life if she mishandles it. Then there’s Max, who has been investigating missing persons and the use of illegal magic on mundanes in London. When such magics threaten exposure of the Faerie world, even an Arbiter like himself can be in danger. Measures are taken against him that leave him irrevocably changed by the experience. But what is so important that someone would attack an Arbiter and engage in these illegal acts? And what can he do about it? And what does this have to do with Catherine’s quest for independence?
Between Two Thorns is the new novel from Emma Newman. Having been writing (and recording in audio form) stories set in this universe for the greater part of a year, the novel nestles in comfortably in the expansive world that she has been creating. The short stories are not essential to understanding the novel, but they do enrich the experience considerably.
The characters and their intersecting, overlapping stories are the strongest part of Newman’s work. It’s a rich tapestry of a set of characters in Aquae Sulis, the real world of Mundanus, and the faerie world of Exilium. With long lifespans and longer memories, the noble families feuding, scheming and interacting over generations lends a rich background of character and plot. Seemingly small discoveries and actions have wide repercussions as the character web reacts to them. Catherine and Max, the principal characters, are well drawn and the minor characters are interesting, too. From the shopkeeper of truly interesting objects, to a private librarian far at odds from the stereotype one might expect, there is no shortage of interesting people in this universe to get to know. Many of these characters are tantalizing enough to want whole chapters and books from their point of view.
Another strong point is the world. The idea of a Faerie world interacting with human society is far from new. Jim Butcher and Seanan McGuire, among others, are mining that territory today. The difference here is not to have a single, leather clad heroine with tattoos dealing with the Fae, but rather a whole society living in a timeless half-world between ours and the Faerie realm, serving their alien Faerie patrons. And, again, this allows for interesting material to raise and develop the kind of people who take such roles. On the other hand, a few things detracted a bit from the book. For one thing, the book lacks a proper ending. There is a denouement of one of the plotlines, but there are a lot of balls left up in the air without any resolution. The book is the first in a series, true, however some of the threads feel particularly incomplete and may turn off some readers.
tThere are also some headscratching moments that the novel and the stories don’t quite address. For example: a moment more than halfway through the book, where Catherine talks to a mundane and explains for him (and the reader) just what the set up is. Some key questions about how some of the things in this world are supposed to work remain frustratingly unaddressed. Perhaps future novels and stories will clear up some of the questions raised.
Overall, though, the book was satisfactory, even to relatively light readers of urban fantasy. With a rich tapestry of stories, characters, and setting, the Split Worlds as seen in Between Two Thorns is the first step into a shop of wonders similar to The Emporium of Things in Between and Besides. There are clearly many more shelves in this literary shop for the author to explore. Readers who pick this one up might find themselves lingering in Newman’s shop for much, much more.