Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman
Something is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s secret mirror city.
The new season is starting and the Master of Ceremonies is missing. Max, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty, is assigned with the task of finding him with no one to help but a dislocated soul and a mad sorcerer.
There is a witness but his memories have been bound by magical chains only the enemy can break. A rebellious woman trying to escape her family may prove to be the ally Max needs.
But can she be trusted? And why does she want to give up eternal youth and the life of privilege she’s been born into?
One of the delights of starting any new urban fantasy novel is uncovering the rules of the new worlds you’ve just discovered. Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman tells the story of the Fae, and long-lived humans, referred to as the Fae touched, who all live a seemingly idyllic Victorian era existence in mirror images of Bath and various other cities throughout the world. Everything seems perfect, but beneath the paper-thin veneer of civility, power struggles and politics threaten to tear their society apart.
The best examples of the urban fantasy genre all have one thing in common. They ensure that their narrative is backed up by a whole heap of rock solid world building. This is where I think Between Two Thorns really excels. Newman has obviously spent time considering not only how the denizens of the worlds she has created would live side by side, but also how they would interact with one another. The Fae are an aloof bunch, seldom seen and seemingly only interested in themselves. Meanwhile, the Fae touched, those that live in the spaces between our world and the world of the Fae, are just as bad. They live in fear of their powerful Fae masters but care little for us poor old mundanes, their name for us normal humans.
Max is an interesting character, his role as an Arbiter (think magically-enhanced private detective/policeman) has changed him in ways we would find difficult to comprehend. He is charged with locating a missing dignitary and trying to keep the peace. Assisting him is a cantankerous sorcerer, an empathic gargoyle, a librarian and a computer programmer who just happened to be in the wrong place in the wrong time. They are an eclectic bunch and great fun to read.
Much as I found Max an intriguing protagonist, I have to admit that I found myself more involved with Cathy’s narrative. Cathy was born into the highly structured privilege of Fae touched society. Growing up in a world of strict rules, obligation and near crippling social etiquette she wants to rebel against it all. She just wants to be left alone to live her own life. She wants to be able to make her own decisions and not have to constantly worry about how this will affect the social standing of her family. In a world where very little ever changes and status is everything, Cathy longs for escape. To her, our world is a revelatory experience, offering the freedom she so desperately seeks, freedom that so many of us would just take for granted.
Treading similar thematic ground to the likes of Clive Barker’s Weaveworld and Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Emma Newman’s first Split Worlds novel still manages to be a wonderfully iconoclastic affair. I feel like I’ve only been given a tantilsing glimpse through a fantastical doorway. There are plenty of hints that suggest that there is much more left still to learn, I’m so looking forward to discovering it. My next visit to Aquae Sulis won’t come a moment too soon.
Recently, I read that Mike Shevdon’s next book, The Eighth Court, will be the last in his fantastic Courts of the Feyre series (another “must read” urban fantasy series from Angry Robot). I was immediately thrown into a blind panic. Where was I going to find something that would adequately fill that void? Turns out the head honchos over at Angry Robot have obviously been thinking exactly the same thing. Between Two Thorns has arrived just in the nick of time. I get to finish one magnificent series and begin another without suffering any serious urban fantasy withdrawal. Relief all round I’m sure you’ll agree.
Between Two Thorns is published by Angry Robot and will be available in the UK from 7th March. The sequel, Any Other Name, will follow in June and the final book in the trilogy, All is Fair, in October.