Reviewed by Richard Webb (@RaW_writing)
Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman is an urban fantasy, part one of the Split Worlds trilogy, and presents a duality of worlds: one, the empirical world of our existence (referred to disparagingly as ‘Mundanus’) and that of the Nether, a magical place of protocols and hierarchies governed by the capricious Fae. The nature of each world is well delineated and gives counterpoint to the other, informing the ‘rules of engagement’ in each setting.
The protagonist Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver (Cathy) wants to escape the constraints of Aquae Sulis, the mirror image city of Bath existing within the Nether, in which the Fae co-exist with selected humans, the ‘Fae-touched’, all seemingly living an idyllic existence of privilege. Cathy, unattractive, awkward but also forthright and outspoken, does not conform to the expectations of Fae-touched society and had escape to Mundanus to study at university, only to be forced back to take up her role as debutante.
But beneath the veneer of civility, power struggles and politics threaten to tear the Nether apart when agents infiltrate the real world — the balances holding them in check being broken through…Max, an Arbiter (a magically-enhanced private detective/policeman), is investigating the disappearance of humans from Mundanus and that of Cathy’s uncle, a powerful politician in the Nether. Assisting him is a cantankerous sorcerer, a living gargoyle, an enigmatic librarian and a ‘Mundane’ computer programmer.
These, together with the cameos from the Fae themselves, make for a colourful cast and for the most part they get satisfactory attention and are juggled deftly. But, as with any multiple PoV narrative, inevitably some characters resonate more with some readers. Eg. Cathy, a ‘fish out of water’ in her own world, a young woman with modern sensibilities more comfortable in ours, so it is not hard to empathize with her plight when events take her back to the Nether.
By contrast, because Max is distanced from his soul (for reasons clear in the story), he is unemotional; whilst detachment serves him well it does not serve the reader so well, making his perspective hard to relate to. The Rhoeas-Papavers, aside from Cathy, are so bound by duty as to be almost caricatures, but Newman shows enough of their feelings to give them humanity, if not likeability.
One quibble, though it is not a deal-breaker: some of the dialogue grates. Where Newman excels at ‘posh’, capturing the linguistic formalities of the Fae-touched, she misses the mark with the ‘common’ interactions: often the real-world dialogue struggles to convince, lacking rhythm, and often sweary in lieu of genuine earthiness.
The world of Fae-touched is well-realized, though for the most part it is a facsimile of Regency Bath and it was not clear why the seemingly all-powerful Fae chose to exercise their powers by creating and preserving this elitism. However, the plot machinations were sufficiently intriguing and the climax well-enough executed (despite side-stepping any kind of payoff) to hold attention and bring the sequel Any Other Name closer to the top of the TBR pile.