When I asked Emma Newman to be on my radio show I already knew how much work she had put into getting published and promoting her novels. You should check out the second half of the show if you haven’t done so already because it is an amazing story. What I didn’t know, until I started to read her books, was how much work she had put into them.
It is fashionable in certain circles these days to deride “world building” as something that authors don’t need to do, and that may even detract from their writing. But constructing a world is something that all speculative fiction writers need to do. Readers need to believe in the story that they are being told. Where world building tends to go wrong is if it becomes an end in itself; if the author becomes more interested in the world than in the stories set in it. I don’t think you can accuse Newman of that. What she has done is create a world that is so complex that she has room to tell a huge number of stories in it. Hopefully this review will explain what I mean by that.
The basic idea of the Split Words is that at some time in the distant past a group of powerful sorcerers defeated the Fae Lords and imprisoned them in a world called Exilium. Humans are allowed to live safely in Mundanus. Between them lies the half-world of the Nether, in which dwell mortal families who are the servants of the Fae Lords. The sorcerers maintain a mortal police force, the Arbiters, to make sure that the Fae and their servants leave mankind in peace.
So far so simple, but Newman has thought hard about how this might play out in practice. While the inhabitants of the Nether are mortal, they don’t age much while they are there. They spend a lot of time in Mundanus as children, then stay in the Nether to stay young once they are adult. The consequence of this is that their social attitudes tend to be rather out of date. So the Nether families behave like 19th Century nobility, and this allows Newman to make a lot of interesting points about feminism and the British class system.
Meanwhile the Arbiters are taught that the Fae and their servants are evil monsters from whom they must protect mankind. In the case of the Fae Lords this may well be right, but some of the characters from the Nether families are more sympathetic than others. The Arbiters refer to them all using the derogatory term, “puppets”. As for the sorcerers, well they don’t appear to be entirely sane.
It doesn’t help that, in order to protect them from enchantments, the Arbiters keep their souls in jars which are stored safely in their Chapter Houses. They can use them to communicate with the office while in the field. Early on in Between Two Thorns, Max, a young Arbiter, is almost killed while using this communication system; and his soul ends up trapped in one of the gargoyles from the roof of St. Pancras station. Part of this is an excuse for comedy, but it is notable that the gargoyle is the real, human Max, while the person who looks like him is a soulless thug.
Cleverly, Newman uses viewpoint characters from all three worlds. The book opens with Sam, a human computer programmer, getting taken short on his way home from a drunken night at the pub. Sneaking into the gardens of a museum to take a leak, he accidentally disturbs two senior members of the Rose family committing a crime. His life goes downhill from then.
The lead character, however, is Cathy, a young woman of the Poppy family. Thanks to a seditious governess who encouraged her to read science fiction novels, Cathy has developed a fondness for Mundanus. At the beginning of the book she has run away from her family and is hiding out in Mundanus with her human boyfriend, Josh. Lord Poppy and her family are hunting her, because they have arranged for her to marry William Iris.
By the way, I have used the common names for the flowers. Newman divides the fairy families into branches based on sub-species of each flower. She uses the Latin names of the flowers a lot for family names. It helps to know which particular flowers she is referring to.
There are several plot threads in play here. Sam might be our everyman window on faerie society, but there’s clearly something going on with him and his ambitious, workaholic wife. How else has Sam acquired a magical wedding ring? Along the way, Newman gets to make some pointed comment about modern Britain.
Cathy’s story is much more obvious. Her arranged marriage to William allows Newman to compare and contrast the historical Britain, and its emphasis on duty to the family, with a more modern society in which people are assumed to have a right to self-determination. Cathy, however, is a somewhat naive revolutionary. It isn’t until book two, By Any Other Name, that she comes to realize that the other fairy women aren’t just mindlessly acquiescent. I’m particularly interested in her sister-in-law, Lucy, a California Poppy, who has her own outsider’s take on British society. In addition, Lord Poppy, mad and sadistic though he might be, is clearly playing a very long game against his fellow Fae; a game in which Cathy is a key player.
All of this is tied up with Max’s story. You see, the reason that Max was on the roof of St. Pancras in the first place was that he was investigating alleged corruption amongst the Arbiters of London. Max is from the Bath Chapter ruled by the Sorcerer of Wessex, while London is ruled by the Sorcerer of Essex. There is talk of something called the Heptarchy, so presumably there are seven sorcerers in all.
Anyway, something is rotten in London, and early on this leads to most of the Arbiters in Bath being murdered. Lord Poppy, whose family is based in Bath, is presumably just as concerned as Max about this, though he’d never be so unsubtle as to actually say so. As of writing, I’m two thirds of the way through the second novel, and there have been so many other stories to tell that poor Max is no nearer finding out what is going on.
Which brings us back to what I was talking about in the beginning. There is a depth and complexity to the Split Worlds that allows a large number of different stories to be told. There is a large supporting cast of interesting characters, many with their own clear plans that affect the main storylines. Newman has done the sort of ground work that will support a lengthy series of books, perhaps many series. I hope that she gets to write them.
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