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?
Sometimes it can be scary starting a book, especially if you have high expectations for it. And starting Between Two Thorns was certainly scary. Emma Newman’s debut novel was probably my most anticipated novel of the first half of the year and since I’ve been reading and enjoying her Split Worlds short stories – even hosting one myself – a lot for the past seven months, I had a pretty good idea what to expect. Still, you never know whether what works brilliantly in short form will be as enjoyable in novel form. As such I was a little scared to start the book: what if I didn’t like it? Thankfully, all my worries were for naught as I enjoyed every minute spent with the novel and its protagonists, Cathy, Max, and Sam.
Part urban fantasy, part Regency novel of manners, Between Two Thorns is a unique beast. It tells the dual stories of Cathy – Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver to give her her full name – a Fae-touched citizen of the Nether and that of the Arbiter Max. Arbiters are those that stand between the Fae and the Fae-touched on one side and humanity on the other. They protect us from being the play things and slaves of the Fae. Cathy is a young woman who is desperate to escape the stifling Society of the Nether and to live like a regular human in Mundanus. She’s resourceful, brave, and strong, but also distrustful of the denizens of the Nether, sometimes unnecessarily so, which could be a bit annoying at some points. Despite this, Cathy is extremely likeable and it’s interesting to follow her struggle for independence. On the other hand, Max’s story is more of a crime story, as he needs to solve the mystery of who has abducted Aquae Sulis’ Master of Ceremonies and a further bigger mystery regarding the destruction of his kingdom’s Arbiter Chapterhouse.
Newman manages to cram a ton of background information, history and world building into Between Two Thorns without ever resorting to info dumps. It was only once I started explaining what the book was about to my husband that I realised the amount and depth of the information encompassed in the book. For a debut novelist, for any novelist really, this is quite a feat. There are many layers to the story; there is the whodunit regarding the abduction; there is Cathy’s re-entry into Aquae Sulis’ Society and her search for an escape; there is the intricate and endless politicking between the Nether families, the Fae, and the Arbiters; there is Sam, a Mundane who accidentally witnesses something he shouldn’t have and gets dragged into the Nether because of it. There is so much going on and yet, with one exception, Newman never loses control of any of it. The one plot line I did feel was left out a bit, was the Chapterhouse investigation, though that is clearly something that I guess will feature heavily in the second novel. Still, for something that got mentioned quite often, the actual page time given to it was rather short and consequently the ending felt a little too open.
The characters featured in Between Two Thorns are almost all of them well-rounded, especially those with larger parts. My favourites outside of the three main characters were Cathy’s intended betrothed Will and Max’s gargoyle sidekick, who despite remaining nameless has quite the personality. I liked the juxtaposition between Will and Cathy; both are dissatisfied at their lot, but where Cathy rebels, Will tries to set things to his hand from within the established mores. The gargoyle is hilarious and makes for a really funny sidekick, but at the same time creates a lot of pathos when he articulates the feelings that Max can’t feel anymore. Hopefully we’ll see more of both of them in the rest of the series. Despite having a Mundane ex-boyfriend, who she isn’t completely over yet, and a betrothed, Cathy definitely had chemistry with Sam. Sam, in his turn is still married, though the marriage is far from happy and is seemingly all but officially over at the beginning of the book. It’ll be interesting to see where Newman takes this in the next books.
Between Two Thorns really was an unalloyed pleasure to read and it’s hard to write a review for it that isn’t just gushing. From her short fiction I knew I liked her writing style, but with her novel Newman has landed me hook, line, and sinker, and I can’t wait for the next book to drop in July. Newman has created a unique blend of urban, historical, and crime fantasy clothed in a Regency veneer. Between Two Thorns is delicious, engrossing, and enchanting and, so far, my debut of the year.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.