Between Two Thorns by Emma Newman (Book Review)

The original review can be found at The Founding Fields, here. It was part of a double-review with Lee Collins’ She Returns From War, the second novel featuring the Western heroine Cora Oglesby. The novel is now being published by Diversion Press. You can get the details here.

New cover from Diversion Press.

Two words I would use to describe the book – charming and fairy tale. This is a fantastic urban fantasy novel, carrying on the publisher’s trend in putting out some great genre fiction.” ~ Shadowhawk, The Founding Fields

Urban Fantasy is quickly becoming one of my favourite genres. With such excellent books as Chris F. Holm’s The Collector series, Amanda Carlson’s Jessica McClain series, and Lou Morgan’s Blood and Feathers as examples, among others, it’s not a surprise. With Emma Newman’s new novel Between Two Thorns, the first in her Split Worlds series, my love for the genre has only increased, especially when it comes to the Fae/Faeries, an element of the new genre I have very little experience with.

[Note: I had initially thought that this was a debut novel, but this is not so. If I’ve mentioned in other articles on this blog and on my own, that this is a debut novel, then I apologise for the oversight.]

Between Two Thorns is primarily the story of a runaway young woman named Catherine, Cathy for short, who has escaped from her “comfy” life in the Nether and has been living in Mundanus for over a year, trying to fit in with the mundanes and live a normal exciting life that is challenging and enjoying. As is revealed over the course of the novel, the Nether is the Fae-touched world hidden from our own where the Great Families have lived for hundreds of years and where people age very slowly. Mundanus is our world, the real world. Through Cathy, and other characters, we see how the two worlds are inextricably linked and how events in one world affect the other.

The charm of the novel lies in how violence-free and touching it is. Rarely is there a scene in the novel involving actual direct violence of any sort, and I loved the fact. It sets it apart from most other urban fantasy novels I’ve read to date, and gives the book a strong identity of its own. That is not to say however that it is sanitised to any degree though. The novel has an occasional curse word, and a fair bit of implied violence, but rarely anything obvious and up-front.  The touching factor rises from the entire feeling of the novel; Between Two Thorns feels very much like a fairy tale, something akin to the feel of Disney movies such as Aladdin, Hercules, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. Not that the novel is meant for kids, far from it, but then again, the movies I’ve mentioned hold just as much appeal and enjoyment for adults as they do for kids, but Between Two Thorns is definitely meant for a mature audience.

Cathy’s character gets subtle character development over the course of the novel. Unlike Lee Collins’ She Returns From War, the change in the protagonist is not obvious or readily apparent. Cathy becomes “better” in small doses as the narrative progresses. When we first meet her, she is headstrong and often selfish in that she does what she wants and thinks more about her own comforts and well-being than that of her family. She wants to do something for herself and stay away from the (almost) rigidly controlled society of the Great Families (in the Nether), but she later develops into someone who is starting to look for a balance and begins to care about her society. For a first book in a series, I could not ask for more. Emma treats her character with intelligence and respect, giving her some great scenes, some great dialogue. It was always great to see her talk her way out of some tense and bitter moments. She gets a little annoying at times, almost petulant, but such scenes are few and far in between.

Arbiter Max is another great character in the novel, paired as he is with a smart-talking and flirtatious gargoyle who also happens to be the unfortunate repository of his soul. Max is a character who truly bridges Mundanus and the Nether in his capacity as an Arbiter, a sort of enforcer who is tasked with making sure that mundanes (normal humans) do not fall into the clutches of the Fae and the Fae-touched, becoming nothing more than their playthings. Through Max, we see a lot of how the Arbiters work, whether those who are faithful to their work or traitors. They are also soul-less, in that they have had their souls removed and transferred into specially-crafted soul chains which they wear all the time and which allow them to temporarily transfer their souls into inanimate objects for the purposes of communication with their superiors and other cases as they may arise. The chemistry between Max and his gargoyle is great, and they complement each other really well. At first I was rather confused as to how the gargoyle became an almost permanent repository for Max’s soul, but that confusion largely evaporated when the two characters worked it out, mostly due to some excellent dialogue from the witty smart-mouthed gargoyle. As a character caught between two different worlds, much as Cathy is, his journey over the course of the narrative is just as memorable.

There are lots of secondary characters in the novel, such as Sam (a mundane engineer who is caught up in events far beyond his understanding, very much like Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole), William (Cathy’s intended husband and the scion of a highly respected Great Family), Mr. Erkstrand (the Sorcerer who ultimately oversees the activity of all Arbiters in the Wessex area and who delivers judgements on the Fae and Fae-touched should they ever overstep their mark and cause trouble in Mundanus), Lord Poppy (the Fae who is the supreme patron of all the Papaver bloodlines and the one that Cathy answers to ultimately as she is a Rhoeas-Papaver), Lucy (Cathy’s sister-in-law), and others. In all of them, Emma has created some lovely characters, each of whom stands very well on his or her own. Sam and William offer up counterpoints to Cathy, given their natures. Sam represents a world that Cathy desperately wants to be a part of. William represents a world that Cathy dislikes and wants nothing to do with, but is forced to. Lord Poppy is a downright crook and that’s where the charm of the character is. His quirkiness and his delightful dealings with Cathy are some of the most fun elements of the novel. Lucy is a character who surprised me quite a bit. Unlike everybody that Cathy knows, Lucy is an American, and she is someone who provides Cathy with a sympathetic ear and stands by her. To see so many different characters is what makes Between Two Thorns such a great book.

The world-building is extremely detailed, and it is quite clear how much attention has gone into making it all work. We see how the Nether interacts with Mundanus. We see how Exilium, the alternate plane of existence where all Fae and their Faerie servants live, interacts with both the Nether and Mundanus. We see how the denizens of all three worlds fit together. We see Great Families, or representatives thereof from all over the world. We get an occasional history lesson as well, and learn more about Mundanus and the Nether, especially where the concept of freedom for women comes in. We see how the politics between the different Arbiter chapters affect how they work with with or against the Fae. We see how the politics play out between the different Great Families, leading to games of intrigue and espionage.

Then there is also the most striking difference between the Nether and Mundanus: the names for the cities in the Nether. Everything in the Nether is a reflection of things in Mundanus. The same cities, the same buildings, that sort of thing. The way that Emma differentiates places in the worlds is by referring to all cities in the Nether by their corresponding Roman names. So London becomes Londinium and Bath, where most of the action takes place, becomes Aquae Sulis in the Nether. A small but significant of the world-building at work.

In short, Between Two Thorns is a book that is packed with a ton of things to entice the reader with. In addition to everything else, the pacing is a bit wonky at times, but nothing too off-putting, although the ending is sort of a cliffhanger of sorts and I think could have been handled a bit better.

The original cover from Angry Robot Books

However, I can definitely recommend this to readers of urban fantasy if you are looking for something different, a book that does not have kickass tattooed heroines (or heroes) who are shapeshifters or things like that. Definitely one of my best reads of the year!

Also, if you want to get a taste for how Emma’s writing is, and how the Split Worlds setting is, do check out her short stories on her website, where she has 53 short stories available for free (in both text and audio; she is a voice-actor as well!). Part of her year and a day promotion for Between Two Thorns and its soon-to-be-coming sequels, Emma wrote some flash fiction every week, 53 weeks total, and we at The Founding Fields have also hosted one such! I’ve read quite a few of these, and I’d definitely recommend checking them out.

Rating: 9/10

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