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?
The Split Worlds are novels seemingly born of Newman’s fascination with the Georgian or Victorian period, and how it contrasts in a number of ways with the modern world. The same gentility on evidence in her Tea and Jeopardy podcasts is also clear here; however, so is the more brutal, repressive, ugly side of that period of our history, and here Newman pulls no punches. This is a novel of contrasts, standing between two possibilities, refusing to grasp either thorn.
That ambivalence, that sense of the greyness of things, starts with the four (count ’em!) viewpoint protagonists of Between Two Thorns. Each is utilised to show a different aspect of the world; Max, the suspicious, emotionless Arbiter, hating the Fae, sniffing out corruption, plots and crime. Cathy, the Fae-touched runaway, off to university and to Manchester, escaping her family duties… until she no longer can. William, the Fae-touched middle child, returning from his Grand Tour to an arranged marriage in which he had no say. Sam, the mundane human dragged into all this by being in the wrong time at the wrong place. Each brings their own perspective to bear on the three worlds – the modern human world, the Victorian upper-class world of the Faetouched Aquae Sulis, and the Exilium – the bucolic dream-land to which the greater Fae Lords were exiled. The characters work very well as a selection – Cathy, through having run away, needs to brush up on the intricacies of etiquette, allowing the reader to get a handle on those; Sam needs a general primer as he’s slowly dragged further in; William is engaged with Faetouched politics, giving us a deeper insight than Cathy allows; and Max hates the Fae, giving us an opposed view to both William and Cathy.
Newman’s recreation of Victorian life is very faithful, with snobbery and society intermingled. What she really brings forth, though, is a two-pronged attack on Victorian nostalgia; one, in its misogyny, highlighted especially through the treatment of Catherine, through her lack of freedoms, through her subordination to the needs and desires of her family. The recreation of the brutal suppression of women is lent especial power by the use of physical and emotional abuse of Cathy; there are scenes in the novel that are incredible hard to read and, indeed, may trigger readers by their power and graphic nature. The other attack is on the class system; mention of the Peterloo Massacre is an early warning that the book has a strong concern with the modern British class system, and Newman’s anger at the current government shines through in her portrayal, rather akin to Poe’s Masque of the Red Death, of the upper classes of a society blithely waltzing away whilst grinding down on its poor.
The elegance of Between Two Thorns belies its anger; a gentler mask for a bile every bit as strong as Warren Ellis’ Constantine, it feeds into a plot that is intricate and self-contained for the most part, whilst leaving itself very open to future books. This is a novel without happy endings, without clean finishes, but with the degree of closure afforded by life; indeed, the plot is very realistic to life. Bargains struck, complex plans falling apart and recovered, human characters interacting with their different takes on the world; despite the magic, this is a very believable novel, no one acting extremely out of character except Max, whose seemingly emotionless nature seems not to hold true at times without Newman seeming to realise she’s written him as having emotion. There are no twists on offer here, no sudden swerves, no complex hidden plans-within-plans revealed at the end, and that is almost refreshing in its straightforwardness; this book is not sold on the complexity of its plot but the veracity of its characters.
This simplicity of plot is also reflected in the writing style. Newman isn’t executed a grand literary tale, and even in the sections set in Aquae Sulis, the prose is modern, smooth, fast-paced, simple to read; dialogue reads as a cut-down Austen, not simplified but rather decluttered of many of the markers of status, class, and so on that litter Georgian and Victorian prose. It’s a style that draws the reader through the book, concerned with ideas, descriptions and characters rather than literary flourish; it isn’t pulpy, by any means, but it has that same sense of intense immediacy, which – in some scenes, such as those depicting Society – seems almost out of place in the narrative.
In sum, Newman’s anger and historical fascination (she gets the Grand Tour as upper-class brothel-crawl right!) create together a compelling, believable, readable novel with characters whom, even if you don’t like them, you’ll want to follow along with. I heartily recommend Between Two Thorns, not as a literary accomplishment, but as a fun breezy read.