By Emma Newman
This book was described as Jane Austen meets magic, which sounded pretty good. And it is pretty good! It just isn’t…that. Lately any book set in a regency-type society is compared to Jane Austen, completely disregarding that it is the characters, not the setting, that makes her so popular. Austen imbues her characters with such wit and charm that it is a delight to read about them even in the most mundane setting or plot. Between Two Thorns doesn’t have any of that charm, really, but instead it has some very good world building.
Three worlds, actually. The mundane, which is our normal reality and set in modern times. The Ether is the faery world, which is very pastoral and hyper-saturated, and no apparent link to time or other laws of physics. The Nether is the land between the two, where the fae-touched live. They are human families that serve the fae in return for longevity and some various magical boons. What I thought was particularly clever is that the Nether, time-wise, is sort of caught between the timelessness of the Ether and the progression of the Mundane, and so progresses, but at a much slower rate. At the time of the novel, it is in a Victoria-like age, with extremely strict rules for society and hierarchy.
The main protagonist, Cathy, is the oldest daughter of a fae-touched family, and desperate to escape the confines of the Nether society. At the book’s beginning, she has escaped to the Mundane where she has been living for a year, going to university in Manchester. It’s a long book, but one of the things that makes it pass so quickly is that there are actually three storylines with three different protagonists.
In addition to Cathy, there is a completely mundane man who accidentally witnesses a crime committed by one fae-touched against another, and is now pursued by both those that were behind the crime and those that are investigating it. He starts sort of shlubby but grows on you.
One of the investigators is my favorite character, or rather ‘characters’. Those that investigate the fae must be sundered from their souls, so that they cannot be magically influenced. It is a whole process; however, our investigator’s soul accidentally gets absorbed into a gargoyle, who is then animated by that soul. So, you’ve got a very hard-boiled detective, because he lacks the ability to truly feel anything, and a very emotional gargoyle, because it now feels everything the detective does not. I love both of them, but perhaps the gargoyle a little better.
Between the three characters and plotlines that eventually converge, there’s a lot of action, which initially distracted me from the book’s pretty significant plot flaw. (spoiler alert)
All three protagonists have deadly dangers they must avoid and great risks they must take, but Cathy’s are especially problematic.
Multiple times Cathy’s agency is taken away in increasing levels, in order to amp up the suspense, and each time, I wondered, how on earth is she going to escape this? But she doesn’t: she is dragged back to faerie society, beaten by her family, forced into an unwanted engagement, and threatened by her family’s patron fairy, all while those around her, including the other protagonists, insult and degrade her. Each time, too, Cathy would find personal acceptance and determination to try all the harder next time, while my rage threatened to choke me, just reading about it all. All in all, it didn’t make for the most pleasant entertainment and I can’t really recommend it.
HOWEVER, speaking of fairies, I do have a series to recommend, which is similar in many ways, but is the fluffiest of light reading. I’m not giving it it’s own review because it is such a good foil to Between Two Thorns, and also I’m a little embarrassed by it. Unmasking Miss Appleby is the first book in Emily Larkin’s Baleful Godmother series, which I’m already three books into by now (they are very quick reads).
Also set in London, in the early 1800s, each book follows a young woman who is gifted a fairy talent on her 25th birthday, and how she uses that talent to achieve love and fortune. In the first book, Miss Charlotte Appleby is a well-born but impoverished orphan living off the extremely grudging charity of family members. When her fairy godmother arrives, she wishes for the gift of metamorphosis, so that she can change into a man and find her own employment and freedom. Of course, she gets employment working for a handsome, righteous and troubled man, and of course, she falls in love with him.
Fair warning, these are also significantly more explicit than I usually read, though I’m getting better at that sort of thing. I guess as I age out of YA, I’ve belatedly aged into erotica? I’m not super sure that’s a great trade-off.
And, since I’m running so long on fairy-related content anyway, I have a podcast recommendation: Worst Bestsellers. Inspired by reading Twilight, the hosts read and then discuss books that have made the best seller list but not critical acclaim. I first ran across them when trying to find something to explain the Sweet Valley High phenomena to a much younger coworkers, but their current reviewed book sounds very similar to Between Two Thorns, in both the good and the bad.