There’s a paradoxical tension that lies at the heart of a lot of fantasy. The presence of magic seemingly makes some things that are impossible for us easy, or even commonplace. People can heal (or even come back from the dead). People can shapeshift into animals, or use telepathy, or see long distances without the aid of a telescope. Yet this often occurs in a setting that is pre-industrial (at best), a world that knows not of flush toilets, cars, and cell phones. Sure, you might be able to heal your flesh wound if you know a wizard—but if you don’t, you will probably die of infection that we can now easily prevent.
Emma Newman examines this tension in Between Two Thorns. Cathy Rhoeas-Papaver is the scion of a Fae-touched family. She used to live in Aquae Sulis, a magical reflection of Bath. There, she and her family do not age. They exist merely as puppets and playthings of the Fae, to participate in a bizarre and twisted reflection of what high society once was in, say, the early nineteenth century. But in addition to not-ageing and going to balls, they learn charms and other little magicks. They think they are better off. But Cathy’s governess infected her with thoughts of “Mundanus,” our world, and so Cathy ran away to go to university. And now she is being dragged back home to get married off into a life of servitude and knowing one’s place.
There is so much to unpack here. But what affected me most is the emotional and physical abuse Cathy suffers at the hands of her family. She is punished merely for refusing to conform to her family’s and society’s expectations for how a woman should behave. Her father beats her. Her brother displays genuine tenderness towards her but nonetheless promises to put a “Doll’s Charm” on her and render her paralysed if she resists him in bringing her back home. Because she would rather live in Mundanus, age, fall in love with a mortal boy than live her life as an empty-headed wife.
Newman is very effective at portraying the way in which abusive people isolate their victim. Once back in Aquae Sulis, Cathy is always supervised and watched. She is essentially kept leashed, allowed out only on special occasions to interact with the fiancé she does not want. Combine this with the fact that nobody else in Cathy’s society really understands or believes that she could possibly not want to participate, and virtually all avenues of escape are cut off for her. It’s only through the extraordinary circumstances of Cathy’s collision with the other plot that she can grasp at any hope whatsoever.
The other plot concerns Max, an Arbiter, a human charged by one of the Sorcerers to police Fae influence on Mundanus. The Sorcerers are apparently the cabal who managed to exile the Fae to Exilium (they are not, however, the most creative bunch when it comes to names). As far as I can tell, the Fae can move between worlds, but they aren’t supposed to do that very often, or else it threatens the balance established by whatever contract the Sorcerers negotiated with them.
If it sounds like I’m fuzzy on the details, that’s because Newman offers very little in the way of exposition. From the beginning to the end, Between Two Thorns keeps its cards close to its chest. However, if you’re paying attention, the internal consistency of the world slowly comes into focus, and you pick up on the details here and there. I really appreciate this “slow burn” approach to worldbuilding.
So, gradually, we learn more about the roles and relationships among the Arbiters, Sorcerers, Fae-touched, and Fae. It’s all very complicated—and, one gets the sense, very precariously balanced. Someone (or multiple parties) appear to be upsetting that balance. Max tries to solve this mystery, enlisting Cathy in a somewhat ad hoc manner, along with a clueless computer programmer who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Oh, and Max’s soul is presently living inside a gargoyle. Can’t forget that detail.
Even as Cathy plays spy, then, in an attempt to find out who among the Fae-touched appears to be behind the machinations in Mundanus, she has to figure out a way to deal with her fiancé, William Reticulata-Iris. Here’s another place where I appreciate Newman’s deft touch. William doesn’t seem like a bad fellow—but he’s a product of his society, and those values are very much ingrained in him. Hence, although he is courteous to Cathy, he still regrets that his family has promised him to someone so plain-looking and ill-mannered. And Newman doesn’t commit the sin of making these two ill-matched people fall in love with each other. Cathy and Will’s relationship is every bit as nuanced, complicated, and volatile as one would expect given how circumstance has thrown them together.
Overall, Newman’s depiction of the Fae-touched society exemplifies the paradox I mentioned in my introduction. As Cathy reflects, the Fae-touched like to look down on ordinary mortals … but no one in Aquae Sulis has a flush-toilet or running water, let alone electricity. The Sorcerer’s reaction to the notion of using a computer to help him track Way-opening activity is humorous. Yet all this technology would certainly improve their lives. And, keep in mind, we’re talking about people who don’t age here. Can you imagine going centuries without running water?
I admit there are aspects of how Newman’s world works that aren’t entirely clear. If Fae-touched don’t age, how come overpopulation is not a problem? Does everyone eventually die in a duel, or become enslaved in Exilium? If not, I don’t understand how the society can continue to function and have comings out for its younger members if the older ones don’t eventually vacate pride of place for them. Similarly, I would have liked to learn a little more about the history of these worlds, how and why the Sorcerers imprisoned the Fae, that sort of thing.
Given the leisurely pacing of the majority of the book, the climax slips into a much higher gear than I anticipated. Cathy and William briefly team up to expose the bad guys, and then suddenly there’s a Sorcerer, and then there’s a denouement where the authorities can hand out punishments … and it’s over, in barely the blink of an eye. It just feels so very easy, compared to some of the tribulations that Cathy faces getting to that point (Lord Poppy is one passive-aggressive mofo, and don’t get me started about Tinkerfaeries).
These are minor quibbles, however, held up against what is otherwise a surprisingly engrossing story. From Cathy’s rebellion to Max’s sleuthing, Newman creates a layered narrative that comes together into a neat faerie tale. I’ll be honest: I wasn’t expecting much from this; faeries can be hit-and-miss for me. Newman makes the right call in not hewing too closely to “established” faerie lore, like the Winter/Summer or Seelie/Unseelie Courts (or if she is, she isn’t showing those cards yet either). She forges a new path, one with tantalizing hints at deeper mythology we’ll hopefully explore in the sequels. Until then, if you want a story with faeries that nonetheless embraces all the foibles of being human, take a look at this.