Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver ran away from home and went into hiding, studying at a university in Mundanus where her family will never find her. At least, that was the idea. But when the Fae Lord Poppy strips her of her concealment Charm, she is dragged kicking and screaming back into the Nether to be married. Welcome to the Society nightmare of the Split Worlds.
The best description of Between Two Thorns may be an urban fantasy of manners. Emma Newman’s universe consists of three worlds bound by ancient agreement: the Fae bound to Exilium; their Society puppets in the timeless Nether (a physical reflection of the real world where nobody ages); and innocent (by which I mean ignorant) humanity in mortal Mundanus. The boundaries are guarded by Sorcerers and Arbiters, and the system works just fine as long as you’re happy with the world you’re born into.
Unfortunately for Cathy Papaver, she has aspirations beyond formal balls, grace Charms and a handsome husband. Her unusual governess planted odd ideas in her head about equality and human rights, fostering a desire for an education and control over her own destiny. These notions are almost as unthinkable in the Nether as a young woman running away from home and choosing to get wrinkles in Mundanus.
We meet Cathy three years later, having navigated the everyday challenges of washing machines, Xbox and tutorials. She has created a backstory to fool her boyfriend and established a deal with the Shopkeeper to keep her hidden. But now Lord Poppy – capricious and self-centred Fae patron of the Papaver family – has decided her family need to ally with the Irises; and Cathy’s marriage is at the heart of the alliance.
But all is not well in the Split Worlds. The Bath Chapter of Arbiters has been destroyed, leaving just one survivor – Max – to flee back to the Sorcerer of Wessex. Sorcerer Ekstrand is a peculiar fish, but he needs Max – a key member of Society in Nether Bath (Cathy’s uncle) has gone missing – and the only witness is a hapless young man from Mundanus. Are the mysteries connected? All signs point to the Fae Lady Rose – but what is she up to?
It’s an excellent set-up, and gets bonus points for focusing on an urban environment that isn’t London. By setting the drama in Bath, Emma Newman gets to riff off our knowledge of Regency Society with minimal exposition; we know how Nether Society works at a human level, because we’ve all had some exposure to Jane Austen at some point. There’s intrigue and the Fae – as personified by Lord Poppy – are the sort of charming monsters I like best.
The book plunges Cathy into a social nightmare of forced marriage, strict social control and complete incomprehension that a woman might wish for more. Practically every character we meet in the Nether is abhorrent: her father is abusive; her sister is a bitch; and her brother has subsumed any personal feelings for his sister in a stiff-necked embrace of duty. At least his American wife seems sympathetic (although I am so cynical a reader that I instantly distrusted her motivations).
Cathy is an Austen heroine with more awareness of her theoretical agency and more frustration at her constraints; Between Two Thorns arguably explores the trope of marrying off a smart, independent heroine to someone she could maybe fall for in other circumstances and the author NOT taking the easy route of it ending well because she falls for him. Plus faeries and mysterious goings-on.
The aspect which I found both clever and appalling was the subversive way in which the narrative repeatedly tempted me to criticise Cathy and mentally urge her to make the best of things and to meet her fiancé Will half way. And then I kept remembering she is being forced into a marriage against her will in a world in which nobody ages and nobody dies. This is anathema to me and the cost of Cathy’s submission – or even compromise – would be eternal. This is NOT OKAY (NB Emma Newman doesn’t pretend it is).
But I still struggled to engage, kept at arm’s length by the petulance (Cathy) and petty spite (everyone else). Cathy is sulky, awkward and easy to criticise. I failed to empathise with her. In fact, I mostly wanted to shake her, which was just plain unfair. Certainly she wasn’t always clever and might have had more opportunities if she’d played things slightly differently – but she’s young and overwhelmed. I felt bad for not being more on her side.
Worse, I had more sympathy for her fiancé, in spite of the fact that he’s basically an entitled shit. He has a habit of doing all the wrong things for the right reasons – or of putting a good face on bad behaviour, depending on how you look at it. Between Will and Cathy, I had to pause to consider my responses to privilege and courtesy – and examine my unexpectedly ingrained impulse to compromise rather than RAGE AGAINST INEQUITY. This made uncomfortable reading of what is otherwise a lightweight read that should have ticked all my boxes.
Over in the mystery plots simmering away in the real world, I hated the mundane Sam (although he reminded me just how special my life partner is), but Max and the Sorcerer were happily intriguing. I loved the idea that Arbiters have their souls ripped from them (to make them immune to Fae glamours), and that Max’s has become inadvertently trapped in a Gargoyle. The Gargoyle is by far the most sympathetic character in the book, and his untrammelled emotions are endearing.
One last minor grip (non-specific spoiler ahoy!) – we get very limited closure at the end of the book. While the mystery of the Master of Ceremonies is solved, the other central plots are left hanging as Any Other Name picks up the next day and runs with them. I enjoyed Between Two Thorns enough (in spite of the ranting) that I’ll carry on reading, but I prefer the first book in a series to stand alone.
Between Two Thorns is available now in paperback and ebook. The sequel Any Other Name is available as an ebook and is being re-released in paperback in August. You’re going to want to plough straight on – there’s a lot of loose threads.