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The year is 1850 and Great Britain is flourishing, thanks to the Royal Society of the Esoteric Arts. When a new mage is discovered, Royal Society elites descend like buzzards to snatch up a new apprentice. Talented mages are bought from their families at a tremendous price, while weak mages are snapped up for a pittance. For a lower middle class family like the Gunns, the loss of a son can be disastrous, so when seemingly magical incidents begin cropping up at home, they fear for their Ben’s life and their own livelihoods.
But Benjamin Gunn isn’t a talented mage. His sister Charlotte is, and to prevent her brother from being imprisoned for false reporting she combines her powers with his to make him seem a better prospect.
When she discovers a nefarious plot by the sinister Doctor Ledbetter, Charlotte must use all her cunning and guile to protect her family, her secret and her city.
Emma Newman has, alongside running the Hugo Award nominated Tea and Jeopardy podcast, written a portal fantasy fairy story series (with really dark fae and a strong Shakespearean influence) and a science fiction career starting with the publication of Planetfall in 2015 and After Atlas last year; now, she’s also making a play for gaspunk.
Brother’s Ruin is an interesting little book; it’s got a couple of themes running through it, and Newman plays with each of them interestingly, and the way they intersect. It’s also a very quietly incredibly subversive book; putting the punk back into gaspunk, as it were, Newman uses the book to question the established order of the pseudoVictorian world she’s writing, and by unsubtle extension elements of our own world (the parallels between a noble class and the wealthy plutocrats is pretty clear, for instance). There’s also a wonderful theme of female independence despite men’s condescension running through the book; Brother’s Ruin is really about Charlotte Gunn, after all, who defies all manner of social convention, but only ever on the sly, and using her femininity and the expectations of others to get away with it.
Charlotte is in fact a fascinating character. In some ways, Newman has written an almost typical Austenian heroine; satisfied with her marriage to a man who will make her happy and financially secure, and not wanting to draw too much attention. However, Newman hasn’t let it be that simple; Brother’s Ruin consistently sees Charlotte bucking against convention and tradition, and pushing against the boundaries placed around her female existence, while also pushing against the class and wealth system that causes so much povery and misery. The rest of the cast are less well realised, although they do still have their interesting elements, from the sweet and slightly oblivious George to Charlotte’s own family, with their quirks, her mother ripped almost straight out of Pride and Prejudice (and then made middle-class).
The plot is perhaps the least satisfying thing about Brother’s Ruin, although not in a negative way. There are two plots which run, connectedly, in parallel; the attempt to get Ben into the Royal Society, and prove his abilities, with Charlotte’s help, and an attempt to deal with an extortionist lender with dark connections pressuring Charlotte’s father. The first is relatively resolved in the book, and Newman has some nice touches of explanation in there without it feeling like we’re being infodumped at; people have misapprehensions corrected, or are given propaganda in both directions, leaving the reader to make up their own minds. The other plot strand is wrapped up in the specific but leads to a much larger plot, resolved unsatisfactorily but with good reason, and one that allows Newman further social critique in the book itself; there’s a very unsubtle lead in to future books in the series.
Brother’s Ruin isn’t going anything new, but it is doing some old things much better than they are generally seen of late: not since The Difference Engine have I read a steampunk book that so actively goes out of its way to deconstruct Victorian class values and by very clear extension critique modern society too. I look forward to seeing what else Newman plans to do with the series.
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Cathy has been forced into an arranged marriage with William Iris – a situation that comes with far more strings than even she could have anticipated, especially when she learns of his family’s intentions for them both.
Meanwhile, Max and the gargoyle investigate the Agency – a mysterious organisation that appears to play by its own twisted rules, none of them favourable to Society.
And in Mundanus, Sam has discovered something very peculiar about his wife’s employer – something that could herald disaster for everyone on both sides of the Split Worlds.
I read the first Split Worlds novel a few months back, and reviewed Between Two Thorns at the time; so when I saw Any Other Name in a Waterstones for the first time last week, I knew I had to pick it up, and so I did!
This review will, inevitably, contain SPOILERS for Between Two Thorns, and contains a SPOILER for a major element of Any Other Name. Also TRIGGER WARNING for discussion of rape.
Any Other Name is in some ways weaker, and other respects interestingly stronger, than its predecessor. The biggest weakness is in the plot; while Between Two Thorns saw Newman introduce a number of different plotlines, they remained closely intertwined by more than just just casual interconnection, whereas Any Other Name follows three different plots, which are linked by friendships or relationships between characters who therefore appear in more than one plotline, but all the same seem completely disconnected. It feels rather like a trio of novels condensed down into one, or like it’s setting up these strands to come together in a dramatic way in the next book; if so, some clearer indication of how they link up would have been rather useful. As it is, none comes to any kind of satisfactory resolution and some are only really getting their feet under them – especially Sam’s plotline – as the novel ends!
Character, though, is where Newman excels. Any Other Name boasts a huge cast, from outcast Rosas through the central characters to Max’s boss Ekstrand and his entourage into more general Society; and each and every character feels incredibly real, feels powerfully well fleshed out. They each have individuality, agency, emotions, reactions to events around them, societally-bred biases which they either embrace or work against, and a core personality that really stands out; Newman makes even brief appearances something much more solid purely by putting some spark into her characters. This is notable especially in two cases, those of Will and Cathy. The latter’s rebellion against her family and society is put to the test, both in kind and in its assumptions, as the novel continues and her latent feminism shifts its focus.
Any Other Name sees more interesting developments on Will’s part, though; he is both humanised and hardened as the novel goes on. Married to someone who refuses to accept society’s strictures, and forced into a new prominence by his family, Will is assailed on multiple sides… and the novel asks us to forgive him the unforgiveable: under orders from his Patron, Will uses magic to rape Cathy. That this is part of a pattern of him increasingly understanding her and her demands on him is notable, as is his guilt over it; but Newman’s presentation is still strange. It’s clearly a use of magic designed to attract Cathy to Will, and thus render the sex nonconsensual, and Will feels guilty about it, but the novel seems strangely quiet on how wrong and abominable this action is, and contrasts it with simply using force to rape one’s wife; partly that’s about Will’s socialisation, but I’m really hoping we see Cathy realise what happened and see her reactions to it in future books.
There’s also a problem of fridging here. Any Other Name sees not just one but three women killed off (or removed from the picture, at least) to motivate men around them; in a series that started with some fantastic challenges to patriarchal narratives and Victorian (gender) roles and values, this is deeply disappointing, and one wonders if Newman could have kickstarted these plot elements in other ways. Indeed, one rather feels she could have, even simply by making one of the attacks more abortive than it was.
In the end, Any Other Name is a good book, beset by problems of its own creation; however, memories of Between Two Thorns give me hope Newman will have addressed some of these in All Is Fair.
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.