In all good fantasy it is the edges and borders that throw up the most exciting stories, rather like the way the edges of tectonic plates throw up volcanoes, and the most exciting aspects of the Split Worlds series are when characters move across spatial and cultural boundaries, where they must adapt and change in order to understand and, indeed, survive.
Those who have read the previous book, Between Two Thorns, will know how the three aspects of these worlds fit together and how the boundaries work. There is Mundanus, which corresponds to the ordinary or ‘real’ world, and mirroring it is the Nether, where each building is a counterpart of one in the mundane world and where the Great Flower families live in splendid Victorian style. Beyond that is the beauteous Exilium, home of the powerful and capricious Fae lords. These places are kept apart by the rules of the Split Worlds Treaty, which protects the innocent – the humans of the mundane world – from the Fae. The Treaty is supervised by the Arbiters and Sorcerers.
In Between Two Thorns the reader has been introduced to Cathy, who is something of a hipster. She has a flat in Manchester, a part-time job, is attending university and has a boyfriend. But she is living a lie. Her real name is Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver and she is a daughter of the Fae-touched Poppy family, who live in Aquae Sulis, Bath’s mirror city in the Nether. As a member of one of the most powerful and coldly rigid Great Flower families, Cathy has had her path planned out for her and she is desperately trying to avoid it. She has managed to escape into Mundanus, and she has also managed to remain hidden from her family for some time. Max the Arbiter, whose soul has been trapped in the body of a sensitive (and sensuous) stone gargoyle, has connected with her in his search for the missing Master of Ceremonies from Aquae Sulis. This book details the way her plans are derailed by Lord Poppy, the capricious, romantic and enchanting Fae-lord Patron of her family. She is one of his favourites – if not the only favourite – as we see in Any Other Name, at the marriage she has not been able to avoid.
‘Oh, God,’ Cathy whispered as she saw Lord Poppy emerge, the faerie flitting about excitedly next to him. Upon sighting her he clasped his hands theatrically over his heart and she saw a glittering tear roll down his cheek. ’That’s exactly what I wanted,’ he said, gliding towards her with outstretched hands as her family bowed and curtsied appropriately. ‘The bitterness of losing you, but the sweet pleasure of knowing you will be the perfect bride.’
Cathy wanted to vomit and imagined heaving all over his immaculate morning suit.
In Any Other Name, the thing that Cathy has feared most happens. She is drugged by her family and hurriedly married to a member of the Iris family, the charming William Reticula-Iris, and this leads to rich developments of even more intrigue. The marriage seems to be vital to Lord Poppy and Lord Iris, but it is certainly not the only narrative strand of importance. Cathy is caught up in several situations beyond her control and which seem to threaten all of the Split Worlds.
Sam, a human, or mundane, character, is still influenced by his experiences in Between Two Thorns. He and his wife are having distinct marital problems even though they are connected by a set of iron-forged wedding rings. She is becoming more in thrall to her boss and more and more dedicated to corporate success. Max the Arbiter, his soul still trapped inside the gargoyle, his sidekick in detection, continues his quest to solve the deaths of his fellow Arbiters and to trace the machinations of the Rose families, both Gallica and Alba, whose treacherous activities were so dramatically curtailed in the first book.
Max, with the rather confused help of Sam, also has new developments to deal with. What is the Agency, the sinister group that seems to deal with the basic needs of the Nether? And what is the importance of the iron in Sam’s and Leanne’s rings? How is it connected to Lord Iron, a shadowy figure who seems to offer protection against the Fae?
Max’s boss, the mad Sorcerer Ekstrand, directs the investigation, but he is very weird indeed and appears to have trouble with certain days of the week.
The Great Flower families live a life ruled by Victorian values of the most patriarchal kind. Absolute obedience to the rules and fashions of society are rigidly enforced. The denizens obey their patrons (such as Lord Poppy and Lord Iris) in the Fae world and they avoid Mundanus because it ages them and is not conducive to obedience to patriarchal values.
Emma Newman has a talent for inventive, cleverly detailed plotting and her creation of the three Split Worlds and the utterly fetching characters who inhabit them, enables her to dovetail some surprising and witty subplots – I haven’t mentioned the many other characters who are fatally involved in Cathy’s life while she slowly undergoes changes to her attitudes and feelings.
Hidden in this clever story is a look at the evils of patriarchy. The oppression Cathy suffers is revealed by the strictures of the powerful Dame Iris, delivered with coldness and a brutal use of power:
The Dame’s mouth drew into a tight pucker beneath her nose. ‘I find it difficult to believe that one of the most influential families of Aquae Sulis would live as savages. Back to basics it is then. A gown for breakfast, then a receiving gown, then in the afternoon, after 3 pm, a tea gown should be worn and then the appropriate choice of gown for the evening event. And of course, should you choose to visit another household or promenade in St James Park, you will wear a suitable gown.’
Strangely, the Great Flower families exercise power through the use of Charms, when they themselves have very little charm at all. Cathy’s travails are a reminder that misused power can render the lives of women vapid and constricting. In fact, the subtext of the stories (well buried in their pleasures) is about the evils of illegitimately used power.
I am looking forward to the further revelations and twists to come in All is Fair, promised for October 2013.
Emma Newman Any Other Name Angry Robot 2013 PB 394pp $18.99
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Folly Gleeson was a lecturer in Communication Studies. At present she enjoys her book club and reading history and fiction.
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