Angry Robot Double – She Returns From War and Between Two Thorns [Shadowhawk]
Shadowhawk reviews two of Angry Robot’s recent releases, one the sequel to a (late) 2012 sterling debut, and the other a brand new novel from an author who has mostly written short fiction to date.
On She Returns From War: “I thought it would be tough for Lee Collins to build on the success of his debut, but with this book he has proved me wrong.“
On Between Two Thorns: “Two words I would use to describe the book – charming and fairy tale. This is a fantastic urban fantasy novel, carrying on the publisher’s trend in putting out some great genre fiction.”
Lee Collins arrived on the publishing scene late last year with a novel set in the wild west where the protagonist was both female and a badass vampire hunter, or spook hunter as she would call herself. The Dead of Winter was one of my absolute favourite reads of 2012, and also made both my “Best of the Best Part 2” list, as well as my “Best Debuts of 2012” list. It was that good, as far as I’m concerned. Reading such a damn strong debut always makes me wonder if the author can live up to the expectations built in by that success for a sequel, or a debut book. Angry Robot’s other 2-book 2012 debut authors I’ve read – Adam Christopher, Anne Lyle, Chris F. Holm – have all been impressive, and I wondered the same about Lee Collins. When it comes to genre fiction, Angry Robot authors definitely set a very high bar, and with his latest book, Lee Collins has proved that, because She Returns From War is a most excellent novel, and lives up to the promise of The Dead of Winter.
With She Returns From War Lee Collins takes quite a different approach to the one he used in The Dead of Winter. The core difference is that the book is told mostly from the perspective of a new character, Victoria Dawes from England, who has had some supernatural trouble in her home country, trouble which has already caused the deaths of her parents. Now she travels all the way to the wild west looking for someone to help her, that someone being famous spook hunter Cora Oglesby, on the suggestion of James Townsend, a spook scholar of some note and a friend of Cora, from what we saw in The Dead of Winter. Victoria, or Vicky as Cora insists on calling her, is faced with getting Cora to return from retirement and help her. But as it turns out, she gets involved in a plot to kill Cora and must, by needs, help the hunter solve her problems before going back to England.
The change in character perspectives was striking, and I was none too happy with it since I love Cora as a character. However, in Victoria I found a much more sympathetic character. From the get go in The Dead of Winter we are presented with a protagonist who is supremely capable at what she does and is strong and experienced at the same time. But with Victoria, we are presented with a protagonist who is in over her head, is naive, clueless and inexperienced. She is also someone burning with a desire for vengeance against those who killed her parents and that’s her central motivation. Seeing her character grow over the course of the novel was a fun ride. There are some tropes involved in the process, easily likened to how Antonio Banderas’ character grows in The Mask of Zorro. By the end, she is well on her way to becoming a capable spook hunter herself.
I really wish that we had gotten to see a lot more of Cora from her own perspective, despite the fact that the scenes we do get are completely kick ass scenes, and not just in terms of action. Cora is by now a retired spook hunter and has finally opened that printing press she kept talking about to her husband Ben in The Dead of Winter. When not working, she is up to her usual tricks in the adjacent bar, drinking and gambling, and living the high life of a comfortable job and no one but herself to take care of. To put it simply, she is content with her life. Then Victoria arrives on the scene and while initially resistant, the old Cora soon returns, and we get the action heroine we loved in the first book. Lee Collins does an excellent job of portraying an “old” Cora, a story element he introduced in the first book, and one that contributes to Cora’s decision to retire from spook hunting. She is no longer as spry as she once was and this comes across quite a bit in the book, but never overwhelms any of the scenes. Lee has balanced that quite well.
As far as the villains are concerned, Lee has once again done a great job at presenting credible antagonists who are not cliches in any sense, much as he did with the vampire lord in the first book. One of the villains is directly related to the events of the first book, and the other is someone new and exciting, who makes for a very interesting read. We get to see flashback events from the second antagonist’s perspective at regular intervals throughout the book, which go a long way to explaining why the antagonist is, well, an antagonist. It is almost a heartbreaking story, just as heart-breaking as the novel’s climax. The characterisation of the villains was a bit thin at times, mostly due to the fact that we get to see a lot of the novel through Victoria and Cora’s perspectives (more from the former than the latter), but I enjoyed seeing things from the antagonists’ perspectives just as much as I did from the two protagonists’.
In terms of the pacing and the world-building, Lee Collins has hit a perfect balance once again. He explores the Indian (Native American) culture and mythology a fair bit this time, whereas the first book was concerned much more with vampires, and the shift in focus was really nice to see. If the book had had a higher page count, I have no doubt that Lee could have done a better job of showing off the culture, but I am happy with how things turned out. The focus is on the two protagonists at all times, and that focus was welcome.
So, to answer my questions about whether this is a better novel than the first, I would say that yes, it is. With only a few minor niggles, She Returns From War was one of my top reads of last month, and certainly one of the best publications from Angry Robot that I’ve read in the past 14 months, which is no small feat since there are loads of amazing books I’ve read from the publisher. It’s almost getting to be a thing with Angry Robot!
Urban Fantasy is quickly becoming one of my favourite genres. With such excellent books as Chris F. Holm’s The Collector series, Amanda Carlson’s Jessica McClain series, and Lou Morgan’s Blood and Feathers as examples, among others, it’s not a surprise. With Emma Newman’s new novel Between Two Thorns, the first in her Split Worlds series, my love for the genre has only increased, especially when it comes to the Fae/Faeries, an element of the new genre I have very little experience with.
[Note: I had initially thought that this was a debut novel, but this is not so. If I’ve mentioned in other articles on this blog and on my own, that this is a debut novel, then I do apologise for the oversight.]
Between Two Thorns is primarily the story of a runaway young woman named Catherine, Cathy for short, who has escaped from her “comfy” life in the Nether and has been living in Mundanus for over a year, trying to fit in with the mundanes and live a normal exciting life that is challenging and enjoying. As is revealed over the course of the novel, the Nether is the Fae-touched world hidden from our own where the Great Families have lived for hundreds of years and where people age very slowly. Mundanus is our world, the real world. Through Cathy, and other characters, we see how the two worlds are inextricably linked and how events in one world affect the other.
The charm of the novel lies in how violence-free and touching it is. Rarely is there a scene in the novel involving actual direct violence of any sort, and I loved the fact. It sets it apart from most other urban fantasy novels I’ve read to date, and gives the book a strong identity of its own. That is not to say however that it is sanitised to any degree though. The novel has an occasional curse word, and a fair bit of implied violence, but rarely anything obvious and up-front. The touching factor rises from the entire feeling of the novel; Between Two Thorns feels very much like a fairy tale, something akin to the feel of Disney movies such as Aladdin, Hercules, The Little Mermaid, and Beauty and the Beast. Not that the novel is meant for kids, far from it, but then again, the movies I’ve mentioned hold just as much appeal and enjoyment for adults as they do for kids, but Between Two Thorns is definitely meant for a mature audience.
Cathy’s character gets subtle character development over the course of the novel. Unlike Lee Collins’ She Returns From War, the change in the protagonist is not obvious or readily apparent. Cathy becomes “better” in small doses as the narrative progresses. When we first meet her, she is headstrong and often selfish in that she does what she wants and thinks more about her own comforts and well-being than that of her family. She wants to do something for herself and stay away from the (almost) rigidly controlled society of the Great Families (in the Nether), but she later develops into someone who is starting to look for a balance and begins to care about her society. For a first book in a series, I could not ask for more. Emma treats her character with intelligence and respect, giving her some great scenes, some great dialogue. It was always great to see her talk her way out of some tense and bitter moments. She gets a little annoying at times, almost petulant, but such scenes are few and far in between.
Arbiter Max is another great character in the novel, paired as he is with a smart-talking and flirtatious gargoyle who also happens to be the unfortunate repository of his soul. Max is a character who truly bridges Mundanus and the Nether in his capacity as an Arbiter, a sort of enforcer who is tasked with making sure that mundanes (normal humans) do not fall into the clutches of the Fae and the Fae-touched, becoming nothing more than their playthings. Through Max, we see a lot of how the Arbiters work, whether those who are faithful to their work or traitors. They are also soul-less, in that they have had their souls removed and transferred into specially-crafted soul chains which they wear all the time and which allow them to temporarily transfer their souls into inanimate objects for the purposes of communication with their superiors and other cases as they may arise. The chemistry between Max and his gargoyle is great, and they complement each other really well. At first I was rather confused as to how the gargoyle became an almost permanent repository for Max’s soul, but that confusion largely evaporated when the two characters worked it out, mostly due to some excellent dialogue from the witty smart-mouthed gargoyle. As a character caught between two different worlds, much as Cathy is, his journey over the course of the narrative is just as memorable.
There are lots of secondary characters in the novel, such as Sam (a mundane engineer who is caught up in events far beyond his understanding, very much like Alice tumbling down the rabbit-hole), William (Cathy’s intended husband and the scion of a highly respected Great Family), Mr. Erkstrand (the Sorcerer who ultimately oversees the activity of all Arbiters in the Wessex area and who delivers judgements on the Fae and Fae-touched should they ever overstep their mark and cause trouble in Mundanus), Lord Poppy (the Fae who is the supreme patron of all the Papaver bloodlines and the one that Cathy answers to ultimately as she is a Rhoeas-Papaver), Lucy (Cathy’s sister-in-law), and others. In all of them, Emma has created some lovely characters, each of whom stands very well on his or her own. Sam and William offer up counterpoints to Cathy, given their natures. Sam represents a world that Cathy desperately wants to be a part of. William represents a world that Cathy dislikes and wants nothing to do with, but is forced to. Lord Poppy is a downright cook and that’s where the charm of the character is. His quirkiness and his delightful dealings with Cathy are some of the most fun elements of the novel. Lucy is a character who surprised me quite a bit. Unlike everybody that Cathy knows, Lucy is an American, and she is someone who provides Cathy with a sympathetic ear and stands by her. To see so many different characters is what makes Between Two Thorns such a great book.
The world-building is extremely detailed, and it is quite clear how much attention has gone into making it all work. We see how the Nether interacts with Mundanus. We see how Exilium, the alternate plane of existence where all Fae and their Faerie servants live, interacts with both the Nether and Mundanus. We see how the denizens of all three worlds fit together. We see Great Families, or representatives thereof from all over the world. We get an occasional history lesson as well, and learn more about Mundanus and the Nether, especially where the concept of freedom for women comes in. We see how the politics between the different Arbiter chapters affect how they work with with or against the Fae. We see how the politics play out between the different Great Families, leading to games of intrigue and espionage.
Then there is also the most striking difference between the Nether and Mundanus, the names for the cities in the Nether. Everything in the Nether is a reflection of things in Mundanus. The same cities, the same buildings, that sort of thing. The way that Emma differentiates places in the worlds is by referring to all cities in the Nether by their corresponding Roman names. So London becomes Londinium and Bath, where most of the action takes place, becomes Aquae Sulis in the Nether. A small but significant of the world-building at work.
In short, Between Two Thorns is a book that is packed with a ton of things to entice the reader with. In addition to everything else, the pacing is a bit wonky at times, but nothing too off-putting, although the ending is sort of a cliffhanger of sorts and I think could have been handled a bit better.
However, I can definitely recommend this to readers of urban fantasy if you are looking for something different, a book that does not have kickass tattooed heroines (or heroes) who are shapeshifters or things like that. Definitely one of my best reads of the year!
Also, if you want to get a taste for how Emma’s writing is, and how the Split Worlds setting is, do check out her short stories on her website, where she has 53 short stories available for free (in both text and audio; she is a voice-actor as well!). Part of her year and a day promotion for Between Two Thorns and its soon-to-be-coming sequels, Emma wrote some flash fiction every week, 53 weeks total, and we at The Founding Fields have also hosted one such! I’ve read quite a few of these, and I’d definitely recommend checking them out.