Subtitled ‘The Split Worlds’, ‘Between Two Thorns’ by Emma Newman begins with split stories. One thread follows Max, an arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, is investigating the disappearance of the Master of Ceremonies and the other follows Cathy, a rebellious young woman trying to escape her strict family.
The Split Worlds are Exilium and Mundanus, two realms joined by the Nether, which is where the Great Families reside. Within the Nether are glamoured copies of Mundanus cities, each named for their Roman counterpart in order to separate them. Aquae Sulis is Bath, Londinium is London and so on. The Great Families have powers, but none are as powerful as the fae lords who live in Exilium. These lords or patrons direct the families, arranging marriages and alliances. An Arbiter such as Max considers calls any member of the Families a puppet. He also seems to have great disdain for the lords, calling them parasites. It’s his job to make sure these beings do not interfere with those dwelling in Mundanus, which would be us, the regular humans.
When a power struggle sweeps through the Nether, decimating a chapter of Arbiters, people from all worlds become involved. This is when Max and Cathy’s stories combine in an uneasy partnership. Max has no reason to trust her and Cathy is tired of being a pawn in a game played by the fae lords.
The plot takes a while to build momentum and there are a couple of stalls, but ‘Between Two Thorns’ is an entertaining read. It has one of the clearest depictions of interlocking realms I have read, which makes it very easy to follow. The division between the realms is clear, as are the rules. The only attraction of the Nether seemed to be the fact time did not move there, however. Near immortality comes at a price; there is no sky in the Nether, no sunshine, no moon and the flowers have no scent. Society is all important and the rules have not changed for three hundred years. Women confine themselves with corsets and manners and men live large. It’s not hard to understand why Cathy would rather live in Mundanus where she can get around in jeans and essentially be her own person.
Max is a more complex character, but ultimately I found him more fascinating. The process of becoming an Arbiter sounds rather dire. Though he is essentially soulless, he is written with sympathy and humour. His accidental companion, the gargoyle, is one of my favourite characters. I also really liked William, Cathy’s fiancé. He is somewhat mired in the old ways, but I think Cathy could find a proper ally there, if she chooses to trust him.
I would have liked to have seen more of Max’s point of view in the latter half of the novel, though the human he worked with, Sam, was very amusing.
Cathy’s story is the most frustrating part of the novel. I had a lot of sympathy for her, but Newman did not give her a lot of chances to rebel and therefore satisfy the reader. She is manipulated at every turn. I found it difficult to champion her as there seemed no way out and Cathy, herself, was by turns angry and dejected. A glimpse of a brighter future would have made her trials easier to bear. She is given promises, the author is not totally heartless, but there was little hope of her realising her potential in this novel, which means one must read on. I’m not sure if I have the patience to do so. I like a little more enticement and reward. If I read on, it will be for Max.
Though the story isn’t entirely unique, but there are a lot of elements that are all Newman’s. She writes well and her characters, even those that frustrate, are engaging. Each has a clear voice. She has definitely made the worlds and story her own. This is a book that will appeal to fans of paranormal and urban fantasy. The series is continued in ‘Any Other Name’ and ‘All Is Fair’, both of which are currently available.
(pub: Angry Robot. 400 page paperback. Price: $11.68 (US), £ 7.65 (UK). ISBN: 978-0-85766-320-7)