Something is wrong in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s secret mirror city.
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?
Author: Emma Newman
Publisher: Angry Robot
Edition: Paperback (UK)
Where I got it: Waterstones (Glasgow)
I bought this book after dipping my toes into the online collection of Split Worlds short stories (which can be found here if you’re interested, or haven’t found them already) and deciding they seemed to be right up my faerie-loving alley. And after reading the first full-length novel in Newman’s series, I’m glad to say I seem to have been right. Cue happy wiggles and a fresh cup of tea.
The ‘flavour’ of this particular urban fantasy effort is decidedly Victorian, full of high society, marriage arrangements and scandalously unladylike behaviour from Cathy, the main character. Normally ‘Victorian’ anything isn’t something I’d leap at the chance to read, but something about this just grabbed me and kept me hooked. It’s a cleverly, deftly used aspect, not only of theme but one that helps to shape a good many of the characters into who they are, just as their “Fae-touched” heritage makes them what they are. When your entire life is arranged and defined by society and one’s standing in it, you either become immersed in it or you chafe at it, and Cathy Rhoeas-Papaver not only chafes, but already once managed to break away from her life in Aquae Sulis and find happiness in Mundanus – the ‘normal’ world of mortals, one that’s generally looked down upon by the Fae-touched and Fae alike, treated as nothing more than a fascinating place to spend a holiday. One certainly doesn’t choose to live there… The fact that Cathy did choose to live there, and would yet prefer to, is a mystery to her family – and to readers, until we learn exactly why Cathy ran away…
The polite society of Aquae Sulis is a thick and elaborate veneer, but it is a veneer nonetheless. The Great Families of Bath’s mirror-city are ruthless, and occasionally vicious, in their pursuit of higher standing, greater influence, more power. Cathy is determined not to become ensnared by it, but as the story progresses it becomes obvious that escaping who and what she is will never be easy. The reasons she is determined to escape her family earned sympathy with me, but at this point I must also admit that it was difficult to find any similar sympathy for any other Fae-touched characters. Namely, Cathy’s family and her intended husband, William Reticulata-Iris. It is, however, perfectly understandable that these people would be the way they are given how they’re raised and the world they live in, but on an individual basis I found myself booing and hissing more often than I cheered. That said, I have to applaud Newman for earning those hisses at all. Despicable characters can still be well-written, and the interactions between the characters found in this book were undeniably intriguing for all of the opposing viewpoints presented.
The intricate worldbuilding of the Split Worlds is another point in Newman’s favour with me, but if I have anything to complain about it’s perhaps that there wasn’t quite enough information shared to satisfy me. It occasionally made the elaborate plot progress difficult to follow (though certainly not impossible), and as a fan of good worldbuilding in general I just plain wanted to know more about this world; fairytale worlds are my fantasy-fan weakness. So, while I fully intend to read the next novel(s) in the series, I’d really like to see more detail included in the portrait that Newman paints, so to speak, of her world. (Or, yes, worlds, if you’re going to be pedantic. Take it over there, I’m not done yet.)
On the other hand, this misgiving could very possibly be assuaged by reading the collection of short stories set in the Split Worlds that the author has written and posted online (see above). Whether they’re better read before the novels, or alongside them, I couldn’t say – but that’s hardly going to set me back. Gimme detail! Also, gimme the next book! This one wraps up most, but not all, of the mysterious web that Newman weaves – just enough threads are left dangling to keep me intrigued, so I’ll definitely be buying the second book to find out where those threads lead. I’m also very eager to find out what becomes of Cathy and Will, and their arranged marriage …
There’s that fascination with the Victorian again. Well played, Ms Newman. Well played.