Sunday, 28 July 2013

Review: Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman

The first novel of the Split Worlds series is the first book I bought off the back of going to Edge Lit and to say I enjoyed it is an understatement. I'd read 20 Years Later by the same author last year and whilst I enjoyed that, I would say that there's a marked improvement in Newman's writing style. Even with the consideration that the book's aimed at a different market the prose felt more confident and the characterisation more deft.



The plot is many layered, taking us into a world where there's a hidden world, the Nether, stuck between the human world and Exillium or if you prefer, Faerie. The protagonists come in the form of an ensorcelled man, a young girl on the run from her family, one of the stalwarts of the hidden world that serves the Faerie Lords, and an 'arbiter' investigating a strange case in London. Newman skillfully tangles the three together into a lovely plot that focuses on high society and low treachery. Perhaps more importantly she wastes none of them and touches on all their lives. Even if Cathy, the runaway, is the main focus for the novel's gaze, we learn about Sam's (the hapless mortal's) marital difficulties or the issues Max, the 'arbiter, has with having titanium in his leg. It must be said that pure id that is the gargoyle Max's soul animates, is wonderfully fresh, providing a real balance to the guarded natures of the other characters.

The action takes place all across the UK, with a particular focus on Bath and it's Nether reflection. Whilst London is important, it's nice to see a break from the frequently London centric content of urban fantasy novels (I get why London is frequently the centre for novels, everyone has a clue what it looks like but it's still nice to see other parts of the country getting some love). Within Bath (or Aquae Sulis if you prefer - the cities in the Nether take their names from the old Roman ones), we're introduced to the great families and their high society, which seems to be a mixture of Downton Abbey and the kind of society you see in many of the World of Darkness games from White Wolf. Here face is everything, honour is something to be defended and, frankly, women are there to be pretty and make babies. The world is very patriarchal and in part it feels as if this is being viewed quite harshly by the author; that facet of fantasy fiction that let us critically assess the world we live in comes into play.

The pacing is good, the Fae are creepy and suitably inhuman (one thing that threw me was their link to flowers, which echoed Tad Williams' War of the Flowers and left me wondering if it was an intentional homage). The mortal characters range from down to earth and level headed to almost as scary as the Fae (in fact in some respects scarier).

One thing I very much like about this world is its focus. Urban fantasy can often 'splash' too easily, dragging in vampires, werewolves, demons and who knows what else; a focus on the fae and their servant families as well as mortals who oppose them in an uneasy fashion, makes a welcome change to the 'throw it at the wall and see if it sticks', attitude of many authors. I suspect Newman's background as a gamer really helps at this time. I also suspect that it's one of the things that helps her flesh out the world so effectively.

All in all this is a strong novel, a lovely concept and a well written piece of fantasy that manages to be relevant even if it's drawing on a mode of society from 100 years ago (perhaps casting a warning to the people who are so nostalgic they'd wish away the last century in favour of the 19th). As such it succeeds, in my opinion as both a work of fiction and as a piece of social commentary. What's clear is that this is only the first of a series (or perhaps simply a trilogy), there are still questions to answer and mysteries to solve. Happily it also stands on its own, so I felt I got the best of both worlds there, truth be told.  Highly enjoyable and much recommended.