Between Two Thorns is about a wayward highborn daughter forced to make her entrance into the otherworldly haute Ton after years of estrangement from her oppressive family. It's also about an urban fantasy detective, an Arbiter of the Split Worlds Treaty between the "real world" Mundanus and the Fae-touched otherworld, the Nether, investigating corruption and treason at the heart of magical law enforcement in London and Bath. It's also about a world where fairies have been exiled from human company to an unearthly prison dimension and the machinations they work on their human subjects from therein. It's also, tangentially, about the kidnapping of a Master of Ceremonies, and an average bloke from Bath who finds himself caught up in confusing supernatural matters, and quite a few other things. This is sort of the problem. In 378 pages of trade paperback, Emma Newman attempts to spin a tale of neo-Victorian fairy-touched society, arranged marriage and court intrigue, Arbiters forced to serve law and order after having their souls "displaced" magically, fickle Fae lords, and sorcerous bureaucracy, but these are more balls than the thin characterization, indecisive plot, and problematically shallow worldbuilding of Between Two Thorns can juggle at one time. The story is awkwardly paced and unsatisfyingly resolved, but more than that, it's overburdened.
The novel's back-cover blurb is uncomfortably misleading: it implies a male protagonist, beleaguered Arbiter Max, and an urban fantasy mystery plot involving "a dislocated soul and a mad sorcerer," a witness whose "memories have been bound by magical chains only the enemy can break," and finally, an ally in the form of a "rebellious woman trying to escape her family." In fact, this "rebellious woman," Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver, is the front-and-center protagonist of the book. It's true that Max helms the book's major subplot investigating the corruption of the London Arbiters, but that's exactly what it is: a major subplot. The dislocated soul is a chipper gargoyle created from a fragment of Max's soul in a confusing and inconsequential piece of magic and the mad sorcerer little more than a bog-standard member of the supporting cast. This suspiciously cynical attempt to pass off a heroine-centric masquerade of manners as a hero-centric urban fantasy police procedural says not only that sexism sells in SFF publishing, but that Max's subplot is detached enough from and irrelevant enough to Catherine's storyline that it's possible to make the book sound like it has almost nothing at all to do with its central character.
Aside from its clutter, so much of what's wrong with Between Two Thorns is embodied in Newman's handling of the story's protagonist, Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver. Cathy is the sort of clumsy, bookish everywoman we've come to expect from urban fantasy and YA: she's klutzy and fashion-clueless and doesn't fit in with other girls! She doesn't want to get married! She loves science fiction! Yes, unfortunately, she loves science fiction—when describing her first dates with nice but quickly sidelined mortal boyfriend Josh (mortal boyfriends never do much in this sort of book), Cathy recounts:
Somewhere between This Island Earth and Forbidden Planet they'd started to hold hands. They kissed halfway through Journey to the Centre of the Earth and by Fantastic Voyage they were almost inseparable. He'd lovingly introduced her to Star Wars in the original film release order and she realised she loved him at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (p. 89-90)
This sort of authorial move is probably intended to render the protagonist endearing and relatable for the average SFF reader, but tends to come off obnoxious and pandering. (Later, Cathy describes an interdimensional portal to a baffled civilian with, "It's like Portal" (p. 300). This is neither as charming nor as descriptive as intended.) It doesn't help that if Newman means to characterize Cathy as intellectual and skeptical, it's undercut by a shocking degree of naÏveté and perplexing ignorance from a character who is presented authorially not just as an adult, but one of the most rebellious, forward-thinking adults of her society. A particularly cringeworthy example of this comes when Cathy reflects on the Peterloo massacre of 1819, a Mundanus historical event she learned about from her "radical" tutor Miss Rainer which stirred the seeds of rebellion in her against Aquae Sulis's repressive society:
As she walked down Peter Street, Cathy thought of the women who had been in that crowd, in their beautifully white Regency dresses, cut down by Hussars who targeted them for being so outrageous as to participate in a political rally. Their world wasn't much different from the one she was being sucked back into, and yet they were brave enough to take a stand when the majority of society decried them. (p. 88)
There's no indication anywhere in the text that we should find Cathy's views bizarrely immature and disturbingly shallow, that focusing on the "beautifully white Regency dresses" worn by victims of the famously brutal act of labor suppression in Manchester might be more forgivable from a starry-eyed twelve-year-old with no real grasp of human life or death than from a thinking, independent-minded adult. This simplified and romanticized image of the English Regency—"white Regency dresses" in place of angry workers—is a common ailment in Regency-inspired fantasy, which often draws more of its research from fabulously entertaining but conservative, nostalgic, and aristocracy-obsessed twentieth-century novelist Georgette Heyer than from any primary sources. For that matter, Cathy's assertion that the oppressive world of the Peterloo protesters "wasn't much different" from the Nether and Aquae Sulis is more than a little questionable itself. Though of course oppressed legally and socially by patriarchy's heavy hand, women's lives in Regency and even Victorian Britain were not quite as dismally powerless as Newman and indeed many other authors of historical or pseudohistorical fiction portray them. Nor is Cathy's situation reasonably analogous to those of the Peterloo protesters: Cathy is a wealthy young woman who faces serious gender-based oppression and abuse from her father, but is dressed in the mornings by speechless, largely nameless indentured servants. This comparison ignores any manner of intersectionality. One is forced to dispute Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver's assertion that her troubles are fairly comparable to those of the murdered working-class women of Manchester in 1819.
Cathy's also a virgin, which in and of itself should be no one's business and not really a big deal, but unfortunately Newman makes both a great deal of fuss and an uncomfortable running gag out of it; her Fae-touched father has laid a creepy and farcical curse on her that causes her clothes to put themselves back on whenever she's with a man and finds herself having "those kinds of intentions" (p. 143). She's assigned moments of incompetence as well that are a bit painful to read, such as when she's given three wishes by the mercurial fairy Lord Poppy and bungles two with bad wording and by accidentally using one of them up on her ex-boyfriend with a figurative "I wish!" exclamation that causes a beautiful woman to be irresistibly attracted to him. It's hard to imagine a male protagonist being authorially humiliated in a comparable way. At times Cathy's less Emma Woodhouse or even Bridget Jones than she is a Meg Ryan character from a forgettable '90s rom-com, complete with gendered ditziness and constant neuroses. Her breakup with her boyfriend Josh is intended to be somewhat painfully comical and is instead impossible to take seriously, given the persistent topic of her bizarre virginity curse; her rakish Aquae Sulis fiancé William Reticulata-Iris, another unwieldy plot element in the novel, treats her and her oddness with long-suffering chivalrous patience, and it's unclear to what degree Newman intends his patronizing attitude to read as sympathetic or understandable. One would hope not at all, but William's characterization is as mixed and noncommittal as the novel's ending, as he waffles between Cruel Intentions-esque roué and loyal and protective ally to Cathy.
Newman's urban fantasy world of Nether/Mundanus has a chintzy, Vampire: The Masquerade feel to it, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. The concept of feuding Fae-touched noble houses with Latin flower names (Papaver, Rosa) in a pseudo-Victorian underground magical society has its campy Anne Rice charm. The Nether, as Newman's enchanted otherworld is called, drifts perpetually in a nebulous Regency-to-Edwardian state where young noblewomen live at the mercies of arranged marriages and young men fight poorly regulated duels for their families' honor. Dueling was a controversial and highly ritualized practice in nineteenth-century Europe, of course, and differed a great deal in both dangerousness and acceptability from country to country and decade to decade, but there's no sense of real pomp and circumstance in Aquae Sulis, not much in the way of the quirkiness and eccentric ceremony that characterizes fantasies of manners like Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevermer's Cecy & Kate series. Characters talk with a mixture of stilted formal speech and modernisms—"Thankfully your engagement has not been damaged by your frightful behaviour," says Cathy's cruel and tyrannical father in a piece of typically passable but awkward Aquae Sulis dialogue, "and I want to keep it that way" (p. 204). The whole setting could in fact benefit from a hefty stylistic dose of Heyer or Dickens, or some genuine whimsy.
Between Two Thorns is one of those urban fantasies brimming with uppercase buzzwords: we don't have sorcerers, we have Sorcerers who cast Charms while working for governmental Chapters that employ Arbiters to enforce the Treaty and so on and so forth. Lord Poppy is not just the fairy master of the Papaver family, he's Fae. The story is cluttered with extraneous worldbuilding like this and leans on many of the Judeo-Christian and faux-Celtic tropes that tend to haunt urban and alternate-world fantasy. Everything in the mirror world has a Latinate name, from Aquae Sulis itself to the Fae-touched families (the Papavers under Lord Poppy, the Rosas under Lady Rose, etc.) and the names of the very worlds, from the rather literal Mundanus to the fairy world one step beyond the Nether, Exilium. Latin here appears to be employed as the universal and timeless tongue of magic, as in J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter series, instead of a language originating in the Italian peninsula. This sort of dead-language hocus-pocus can be reasonably charming if tongue-in-cheek in children's fiction, such as with Rowling, or if there's any sort of in-text historical context, but Between Two Thorns can lay claim to neither. Similarly, characters have souls which can be displaced and removed and bandied about, as is central to Max's character conceit and otherwise awkwardly irrelevant to the story and world, but there's no sense of theology in Aquae Sulis or the Nether, despite the society's ideological conservatism. Aquae Sulis has none of the confident whimsy that pulls together Failbetter Games's Fallen London or even Neil Gaiman's London Below. It's overcomplicated and difficult to explain, choked with needless detail that would be more at home in a campaign setting than a narrative.
And then there's Max's storyline. The plot threads of Between Two Thorns are difficult to review cohesively because they aren't handled cohesively: Max and Cathy's plots run side by side and barely touch until near the end of the novel. Max is an Arbiter, a man disfigured by his own fractured soul and bound to uphold the Split Worlds Treaty: this sounds sort of interesting, or would if it had any seeming relevance beyond plot-driving MacGuffin value to the rest of the book, which is probably why it was highlighted in the back cover blurb. What this means is that he's a fairly bland cipher chasing a supernatural mystery that eventually becomes relevant to Cathy's storyline, in a technically sound but unsatisfying resolution to the plot, if one defines the plot as being the kidnapping of the Aquae Sulis Master of Ceremonies. Given that we haven't met the Master of Ceremonies and are in fact never quite certain what sort of Ceremonies he might be Master of, it's hard to invest in this. Max is a little more automatically sympathetic as the sole survivor of his slaughtered bureau, but this plotline of deadly governmental corruption is barely explored: the murders of his colleagues are heavily referenced for most of the novel, but only confirmed in its last pages. Meanwhile, Cathy's life situation remains largely unresolved: her relationship with fiancé William is marginally pleasanter, her atrocious family situation is as atrocious as ever, and nothing seems to have substantially changed for her. The characters of Between Two Thorns spend most of their time in waiting rooms, rehashing exposition, and chasing plot threads around unproductively, which has a deadly smothering effect on the novel's pacing. The book is first in a trilogy—naturally—and it doesn't much stand alone.
Newman's mundane Bath holds no sort of candle to Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London (2011) or any other vivid characterizations of real cities in urban fantasy, in part ascribable to the indecisive way the narrative falters between Bath and Aquae Sulis, never really settling down in one long enough to look around, take its bearings, and introduce us to the setting. The only character of color manifests—tiredly enough—in a nameless dark-skinned female hospital doctor who treats an injured Max briefly before vanishing forever from the narrative and depositing us back in Newman's world of pallid fairies, spirited brunette heroines, and beautifully white Regency dresses. Other female characters fare rather blandly in Aquae Sulis: unfortunately, Cathy is presented as an archetypal Exceptional Woman among catty queen bees, scheming harpies, and a coquettish debutante here and there. Her most caring relative is, predictably enough, male, in the form of her brother Tom: she finds a sympathetic friend in her American sister-in-law Lucy, but Lucy is characterized as such a one-note sassy fashionable friend to our bookish, dowdy heroine that it's hard to muster much excitement about their relationship. Her mother is unfeeling and judgmental, only concerned that her daughter's bruises from her father's beatings might make her unfit for polite society. Cathy seems to live and move in a world consisting of herself and women from Central Casting. This is less glaring than it might have been, since Newman's male characters also seem to have been hired from Central Casting—"Oh, fiddlesticks and flapdoodles!" exclaims sorcerer Ekstrand to Arbiter Max in one particularly painful moment (p. 238)—but the end result is that the women of the novel are arrayed to provide foils and contrast to Cathy. No non-Cathy woman enjoys as much agency or personality as secondary characters Max and William, or even poor baffled civilian Sam.
Frankly, Between Two Thorns suffers from the wrong kind of restraint. Allowed to shine, Aquae Sulis could have had some of the flamboyant luster of Jacqueline Carey's Kushiel's Legacy series, full of convoluted intrigue, beautiful schemers, ridiculous faux-Romance conlang, and unapologetic high camp. Between Two Thorns at its best could have been a fun, frothy romp arm in arm with Changeling: The Dreaming and The Scarlet Pimpernel, in which case the Harry Potter Latin and the dubious usage of Manchester labor history mightn't have made such a dent in its momentum as a story. The trouble is, it's just not very fun.
Gabriel Murray (email@example.com) lives and works in Queens, NY. He writes speculative and historical fiction and blogs at Orestes Drunk and Pylades Fasting about interactive fiction and miscellanea.