In Between Two Thorns, Book 1 of the Split Worlds trilogy, Ms. Newman invites you into a rich, complex world that includes the Nether, a place between the Mundane world (i.e., the one in which you and I live) and the faerie world, Exilium. The mundane world is that of contemporary England, the Nether world is anchored to the mundane world at key points including Bath, London and Oxford and is its magical mirror. Exilium is a physically perfect, full on, color drenched world in which the utterly alien faeries live.
For many years, these worlds have been held together (and apart) by treaties that keep the Fae (and the Fae-touched) from messing with mundanes, the Fae-touched doing as they’re told within fairly strict confines of social rules and the Fae being kept within their beautiful prison of Exilium. Sorcer’s and their enforcers, the Arbiters keep the Fae (and Fae-touched) at bay in this uneasy alliance. Whilst in the mundane world, all is mostly as expected and you could easily have a pint or take tea with any of the characters. (If your’e from the American South, as I am, you’ll have to steel your ears against a plethora of what would be foul language for us). In the Nether, you would be very much concerned if your cravat is tied correctly and about the correct depth of your bow to your patron; if you’re a women, your sole ambition would be to stay physically beautiful, be at the height of Edwardian fashion and produce lovely looking children who fit all expectations. It is very much a man’s world. In Exilium, you worry if you will come out alive and, if you do, which mess the faeries will make of your life this time.
Enter in one Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, eldest daughter of one of the great families of Nether society, who fits none of the categories and would willing trade in a Fae-controlled life of eternal youth for a free mundane life. While she is trying to find a way out, there are hints that the alliances and expectations, which have been the status quo, are unravelling. All of this background, that I’ve written in such a prosaic and boring way is brilliantly woven and revealed in bits and pieces throughout the story.
Reading Between Two Thorns, one senses that Ms. Newman must be one of the few mundane allowed to wander through all three realms with ease. It all seems so real. I know I’ve met Sam and probably went to a book club with Catherine; I might have even bumped into William Iris while he was on his grand tour. Not only does its realism come through the characters but through all of the exquisitely lovely detail – from the floral names of the nether families, based on their Fae Lord, to the Roman names of the Nether twins of Bath, London and Oxford to the social norms and interactions in each. The perception amongst the fae-touched of the mundane is that we’re crude, oafish bores who can only belch and swear whilst the mundane, if they were only aware of the fae-touched, would perceive them as stuck-up twats who didn’t have a clue to life. As strange as it may sound for a faerie story, its realism is one of its major draws.
Cathy and Sam collide as they break through each others worlds even as the Nether seems to continue on as it always had. Cathy, in particular, appears to be irretrievably sucked into the very society she has come to loathe. For any who tire of trying to measure up, of being burdened by everyone’s expectations, Cathy’s your girl. She has all of those challenges in spades, with her expectations having the additional weight of truly awful consequences to herself and those about whom she cares, not just letting herself or others down. She’s the James Bond of following her own path – she’s doesn’t always make the smartest move, but she soldiers on to meet her goals. Her courage and cleverness, even as she blunders through mistakes, is inspiring.
One of the other aspects I love about Ms. Newman’s writing is that, every time I think I have it all nailed down, she shifts just enough to keep me off center. Her surprises are natural and realistic. Revelations are first – “whoa” then “ah, I get that”. It’s not like those stories where the protagonist’s former fling, who was thought dead, comes back as yet another super-hero with kickass fighting skills while being tied to the man he just killed who was his major enemy. No, these surprises flow from the story, not plopped down in it.
So you have this brilliant setting with complex multi-dimensional characters, but is it a great story? Ms. Newman has a really solid story building throughout Between Two Thorns, but it doesn’t have time to fully develop. Looking ahead, and I can say this with safety as I’ve already started Any Other Name, book 2 in the series, it really gets moving as the trilogy continues since the foundation of the world and people are laid down. Between Two Thorns is a wonderful book; at least so far, it only gets better. It’s a bit telling that the book ends with a cliff hanger (even though this book is nicely finished); cliff hangers don’t happen without driven narrative. I doubt it was 3 minutes between end to downloading Any Other Name; that’s storytelling.
As I often do, I went between the Kindle and Audible version of the book. I absolutely loved her narration; often authors aren’t their own best narrators, she’s an exception (she also narrates other books). While Ms. Newman doesn’t change pitch and tone with each character to the same degree as a number of narrators do, her dulcet toned voice more than compensates. Moreover, you never have to worry about the identity of the speaker. I first heard her on her podcast Tea and Jeopardy and have loved her voice since.