Emma Newman, The Split Worlds (2013)

I like urban fantasy. I’m not a big fan, but I’ve read a couple dozen. The first series I really enjoyed was Mercy Thompson by Patricia Briggs, recommended to me by Ola. At first I couldn’t get into Dresden Files, but now I preach the genius of Jim Butcher. 2013 was a year when I discovered British urban fantasy. It started with excellent “Courts of the Feyre” series by Mike Shevdon, then I discovered Ben Aaronovitch and his novels about “ethnically challenged” London police officer.

Of course, now that I think about, my first English urban fantasy was “Neverwhere”. Gaiman’s masterpiece I’ve read as a novel and graphic novels, listened to in audio form, and watched a TV mini-series (IMHO the weakest version of the story). It was great…

Another British author I discovered was Emma Newman. Beautiful voice (professional narrator and she has her own podcast, very entertaining “Tea and Jeopardy”, nice short stories available online, great covers:

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And a trilogy of novels. Beginning with “Between Two Thorns”, followed by “Any Other Name” and concluded with “All is Fair”, all published in 2013.

The premise is very interesting. The prose is delightful. Worldbuilding masterful. Characters… intriguing enough, at first. Structure… not so great, but the flaws were not obvious in the first novel. Slow build-up is ok for me at the beginning of the series, I want to get to know the world and people in it and, if I like what I see, I’m in no hurry. It got problematic in books #2 and #3, where nothing happens till the last 25% of the novel.

Why “Split Worlds”? Because our boring, regular world (“Mundanus”) is not all there is. There is also Exilium, where Fae live, and Nether, space in-between. Nether is inhabited by the puppets of Fae (politically incorrect term ;), they find it insulting, but, in true, that’s what they are, servants of their Fae Patroons) and that’s where most of our protagonists (and antagonists) live. The Fae scheme against each other, fighting through their proxies – members of Nether societies. They would prey on regular humans, but it’s not easy – Mundanus is defended by Arbiters, a sort of police force cooperating with human sorcerers, powerful enough that in the past they exiled Fae from our world into parallel one (thus “Exilium”). Nether is a shadow of regular world, and main location we get to know are Londinium and Aquae Salis (shadows of London and Bath, respectively).

Society of Fae servants are a copy of how Newman interprets Austen. Strict manners, patriarchy, oppression of women and rampant misogyny. At times it does feel like a sort of fan fic of Austen, by a feminist unacquainted with the concepts of subtlety and historicism. Someone who knows how things should work and is unable to comprehend why XVIII-cent. aristocracy, ancient Romans or cavemen could have been so stupid as to not understand the virtues and necessity of Universal Suffrage.

And I was going to leave that rant for the conclusion…

Ok, the first novel is very good. The world is new and fascinating, characters struggle to survive and attain their goals – goals realistic and praiseworthy, like self-determination, happiness, simple stuff we all want. Or just do their job. Secondary characters struggle with the pressures of society, and usually lose, but it’s all believable and doesn’t prevent us from getting a nice happy end. Not all is resolved – it is, after all, first in a trilogy of novels – but we have some sort of conclusion and enough question marks left to leave us hooked.

After reading “Between Two Thorns” I bought the rest and waited two years to read them. Not because I expected them do disappoint me – although there were some warnings. My backlog is just too long and I needed a break from urban fantasy.

Recently I read “Any Other Name” and a short Goodreads review summarises my feelings:

For me it’s mostly a disappointment. An interesting world we get only a glance at, through characters and story less interesting than in book one.

Some of the characters drop dead before we learn enough about them, other give up on their goals, and unlikeable ones win.

I feel like the novel tries to make me like some of them, tries too hard.

The Nether society is so annoying that, for me, it was a collective antagonist of sorts in the first novel. Here, it’s clear that we’re supposed to root for its reformers, and it makes me fear the final book.

I’m not sure there’s anyone left for me to identify myself with and to support. Final pages, final fight – and final disappointment – when a character I dislike quite a bit, acting on behalf of two powers I desperately want to see destroyed, kills a decent fellow under false pretence and gets a reward he absolutely doesn’t deserve 😦

It’s not all bad, but it’s worse than “Between Two Thorns” and the story goes into the direction I don’t like. A matter of personal preference more than quality of writing, but still…

The third book was even worse. We had some naïve environmentalism (really! I’m all for saving rainforests, but not through Deus Ex Machina plot devices and viomit-inducing speeches), we have lots and lots of naïve feminism (I’ll let Ola expand on that in her comment, her critique will be more credible 😉 ).

We are subjected to unveiled attempts to make us like certain characters, we have other characters made even more villainous just to make author’s favourites look better in contrast.

And the trilogy ends with easy, unrealistic solutions to most of the problems. Deeply disappointing.,

I was especially disappointed with the main heroine, Cathy. She started as a strong female protagonist and ended as a caricature of one. In the first volume her rants against injustices of her society are annoying (she’s right, but why does she have to repeat them every couple of pages?), in books two and three she gets dumber and still repeats herself all the time. Unintentional straw feminist (straw suffragette?). Despite being a “strong woman” she falls for a Prince-In-The-Shining-Armour (that she was forced to marry, but true love follows) ready to help her fix the world (after he shakes off magically enhanced charms of his mistress). And fixing the world is revealed to be so very f*g easy. We learn that scores of people tried to change Nether society for generations, but inevitably failed. Do not fear! Cathy will fix everything within a few weeks. Bleh…

My recommendation – read the first book. It’s something fresh and likeable, and ends in a way that lets us pretend no more of them were published.

Score: Between Two Thorns: 7,5/10 Any Other Name 5/10 All Is Fair 4/10

5 thoughts on “Emma Newman, The Split Worlds (2013)

  1. I’ve been called out 😉
    Newman for me is the perfect illustration of a saying “road to hell is paved with good intentions”. Good intentions are in her trilogy overabundant; they’re there in almost every sentence, leaking out and simply killing what could have been a good story. I agree with Piotrek that the first installment was decent. There was a quite original worldbuilidng idea, there was genuine interest in story and in the leading characters. But the bad omens were there too, if one cared to look 😉 However, what was a good premise was later drowned in a puddle of good intentions, stereotypic environmentalism simplified to the point of falsifying the whole idea, and “feminism” which in the end really becomes something completely opposite.
    And here comes the rant…
    The protagonist, Cathy, was supposed to be a strong, self-reliant, smart and capable. Every single of these traits disappears with a quiet puff as soon as she spots her True, albeit forced on her, Love. Thankfully forced, because, after all, everybody else knows her heart and mind better than she does. Women are fickle creatures and need a firm hand that will guide them through the meanders of life. And True Love always wins, even if the object of this love engages through long swaths of the second installment in extramarital sex. We shouldn’t judge him too harshly, because he was the victim, not the perpetrator – it wasn’t his fault that the girl used enchanted perfume to get him to her bed, was it now? His terrible fate was to become a mindless sex machine used by a devious femme fatale. Poor soul, what a trauma that must have been! And so forth, and so on… I’m sure Newman is a very nice person, but reading her trilogy I couldn’t help but nurture this strong suspicion that she secretly wants to refute the idea of equal rights as totally bonkers. Because that’s what she does, in essence.
    I think that Piotrek was very generous in giving his score. All in all, I’m steering clear of Newman’s books for a looong while.


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