Fairy tales are the oldest fantasy stories still told today, and the ubiquity of fairies in the genre can often make it difficult to do something new with such an old trope. Much the same can be said for portal fantasy and alternate world stories (though A Darker Shade of Magic did an excellent job of it).
In the Split Worlds series(the fourth volume of which, A Little Knowledge, just landed), Emma Newman combines them all—fairies, and alternate worlds, and travels between them—and does something wholly new, using her a well-rounded and incredibly nuanced cast of characters to further a pointed critique of patriarchal societies. Though the alternate world of the Nether, where much of the intrigue takes place, is stuck in a permanent Victorian-era societal structure, Newman’s depiction of women’s place there serves as a reminder not only of how far feminism has come, but also how far we have yet to go.
Character and Intrigue
Meet Catherine Rhoeas-Papaver—Cathy, to her friends. She’s a socialite from a Fae-touched family living in the Nether, the place that exists between our “Mundane” world and the fairyland of Exilium, a place where sorcerers have exiled the Fae to keep them from mucking about with humans. The Fae-touched are humans sponsored by Fae Lords and Ladies; they live in the Nether, where they never age. Fae-touched society came to a halt during the Victorian era, and nothing has changed since—including the oppression of women and the (sometimes deadly) power plays of the elite. Cathy wants no part of this, and flees into Mundanus, where she hides out, trying to live a normal human life.
Cathy is considered an ugly duckling in the youth- and beauty-obsessed Nether. In Mundanus, she can be accepted for who she is and live a life she dictates. After successfully escaping into her “fantasy” world, she’s caught out by a powerful Fae lord and sent back to her alarmingly abusive family, from whom she discovers she’s been promised, without her consent, to marry William Reticulata-Iris, who actually thinks the forced marriage is saving her from the physical and emotional abuse perpetrated on her by her father.
Family politics aside, there are also several mysteries afoot: Cathy’s missing uncle, the missing memories of a mundane named Sam, the mass murder of the members of a secret magical law enforcement sect. Sam is just normal dude on a night out who sees a few very odd individuals packing a body into a car—the epitome of “wrong place, wrong time.” Though he’s cursed to forget what he’s witnessed, he becomes entangled in an investigation by those in charge of keeping the Fae and their human “puppets,” the Arbiters, inplace. One of these Arbiters, Max, stumbles upon possible corruption in his ranks, even as mayhem erupts all around him: a mass-killing of Arbiters, strange kidnappings of Mundanes, and the disappearance of a Fae-touched elite. Did we mention this is just the first novel?
Book one, Between Two Thorns, does the heavy lifting, introducing us to the characters and settings that dominate the series. The political intrigue is well established, and by the book’s end, we’re well on our way to screaming at Will for being a huge dolt (screaming at him out of love). From there, the series expands outward, revealing more of how these societies are structured and how dangerous and horrible they can be for a non-compliant woman.
Social Structure in a Magical World
The Nether’s ruling families are patriarchal in nature, sponsored by Fae Lords who determine how much power to grant them.The family politics are mirrors of those found in any society rife with power imbalance (so, um, all of them), but what makes Newman’s set up more interesting is the emphasis placed on examining the patriarchy. Men have a lot of freedom; they are the holders of titles, property is passed down through them. Women are treated more like valuable pets, and alliances between families are struck through marriage. It’s very old-fashioned, and in total contrast to modern Mundanus society.
Cathy serves to shed light on how backwards Nether society really is. She learns about the women’s movement in Mundanus from a rogue governess, and is determined to flee the Nether and continue her education, intending to towards become a human rights lawyer. Her rebellion against arranged marriage and complete inequality between the sexes forces men like Will to acknowledge that all is not well in their society. Her own father has placed a curse on her, forcing her to remain chaste; when she’s married off to Will, her wedding band ensures that if any other man that touches her, even platonically, she will be literally scarred. Naturally, Will suffers under no such restrictions. He even goes so far as to acknowledge that he doesn’t want any of this any more than she does, but rather than try to figure things out, he takes his male privilege to another woman’s bed and sleeps with her instead. (But it’s not all black and white—the second book, Any Other Name, sheds light on Will’s motivations.)
Will’s “well-meaning” actions are obviously influenced by the culture he was raised in, and I often wanted to smack his pretty face every time he did something short-sighted for Cathy’s “own good,” as when he steals the credit for her solving a crime that saves a life. In his mind, it would hurt Cathy’s feminine reputation if it was found out she was galavanting about investigating mysteries. The horror! While his intentions seem honorable, he’s doing Cathy more harm than good. She’s battling for respect of her own, and her resourcefulness might go a long way toward earning it. But Will is not a cookie cutter misogynist. Things happen to him that are beyond his control, and at some point, he starts to show signs of empathy and understanding for Cathy’s situation. Even as he continues to do despicable things, somehow, it’s hard to hate him.
A Series to Watch
It’s brilliant of Newman to include so many different voices as the series continues—men and women raised in the Nether, the Arbiter, and a mortal from Mundanus—alongside Cathy. All of them speak to different aspects of the world-building, giving us a variety of viewpoints on the rules that govern Exilium, Mundanus, and the Nether. There are characters to champion and characters to despise, but no matter how we feel about them, we can see how they justify their own actions, and the resulting story becomes that much more human and relatable because of it. This is a series that forces you to think seriously about societal systems you may have never before questioned. If you’re one of the readers who resonated with Kameron Hurley’s Geek Feminist Revolution—a reader looking for strong female protagonists who aren’t afraid to fight for what they believe in—you’ll devour them like delectable scones, and ask for more.