Spoilers for the first two books are very possible.
Here I am again, for the third time, wondering how to review a book in Emma NewFantasy Review Barn
Spoilers for the first two books are very possible.
Here I am again, for the third time, wondering how to review a book in Emma Newman’s ‘Split Worlds’ series. Obviously these books do something for me, I keep reading, nay, devouring them. I am not sure there is a series that once I get an entry in my hands I can read faster. And yet when done I always find myself in the same position; I know I enjoyed the journey but have a huge list of things to pick apart. Is this fair? Am I being too critical? Why do I keep reading a series that I consistently rate with three stars?
And the more I think on it I have come to a simple conclusion. I keep reading the series because the author does many of the “big things” right (characters and the unique world specifically), and my quibbles are mostly with the nagging little details.
Nagging little details. The story so far has followed Cathy as she fights against the patriarchal hell that is the Nether, an in-between land that the Fae use as a little political playground. And that is cool, and her fight makes up the bulk of the book and is interesting and I find myself cheering and etc. But I still can’t figure out what the hell it is about the Nineteenth century that this whole magical society decided to adopt. Why does Cathy need to fight this fight in the first place in a magical society that seems to lack none of the necessities? Cathy’s fight for equality for all the poor repressed citizens of the Nether is admirable and enjoyable, but by the end of the book I found many of the steps she took to be too easy. I am not sure I ever doubted her abilities, never felt any pressure for her. Worse, many, though by no means all, of those she rescues seem like hostages in a video game, no mind of their own until she touches them and they suddenly become people. You know, with feelings and desires of their own?
Nagging little details. A secondary storyline had to do with Max, an arbiter charged with keeping a treaty that STILL hasn’t been explained, three books in. He is also followed around by a Disney sidekick, a gargoyle, who is supposed to be carrying his soul do to circumstances in the first book. Because of this Max is supposed to be emotionless. But I don’t know if I ever have been convinced that the grudges he holds verse the puppets of the nether is anything other than buried emotion. Worse, I want to kick that gargoyle. Goody goody thing that he is, he still is supposed to be nothing more than an animated block of stone with Max’s soul. When did he become a dog? Several times he is seen “sniffing,” and then finding stuff. Do concrete blocks with human souls gain the super power of smell?
Nagging little details. Sam makes up the third portion of the story so far, at first nothing more than a man in the wrong place at the wrong time. We watched his marriage fall apart, got a few cryptic messages about a connection to Iron, and saw him attempt and fail to rescue some prisoners of one of the Fae, a Lord Poppy (who is also Cathy’s Patroon, or puppet master, or whatever one wants to call him). But the simple matter is I have not cared about him one lick through the first two books; he is a mopey guy who hasn’t really added to the story. Well big changes are coming and suddenly he is a man of destiny. That is fine by itself, but there was a whole lot of narrative convenience once he learns a few things, and the speed of his transformation didn’t work for me. Your mileage may vary on that one.
And once again I find these things bugging me more than they should, because they are hidden in a very enjoyable story. More and more I am seeing the series as a soap opera. Book three wrapped up some plot lines that started in book one and opened a few more that will no doubt take a few more to resolve. Some of the nagging little problems I had after book one have been rectified (such as thinking Cathy was the first women in the Nether to think about her place in society, when in fact we have learned a lot of curses and other nefarious plots kept the forward thinkers apart and/or hidden). Some links from book one still have not been explained, such as what the sorcerers’ place in the world really is and why the Fae would ever agree to a treaty limiting their reach.
So going back to the questions at the beginning. I keep reading because I enjoy it, and recognize it for what it is. Slightly flawed, but so far worth the ride. Nice to see some resolution, though I was kind of hoping this was the last of a trilogy rather than the middle of what may be a never ending series. Newman has continued to keep me invested in the story, especially Cathy’s fight against the system she was born in and the political fighting between the Fae.
What a strange series the Johannes Cabal saga has become. The first book was a Faustian tale with an evil carnival. It introducedFantasy Review Barn
What a strange series the Johannes Cabal saga has become. The first book was a Faustian tale with an evil carnival. It introduced us to the title character, a wholly unlikeable man who in the end outsmarted the Devil himself. It was full of dry, slightly morbid humor, a fast moving plot, and I enjoyed it very much. The second book kept the unlikable title character but put him in a steampunk noir adventure, this time acting as a Sherlock in the story. It was a complete change of pace.
Which brings us to the third book in the series. The Fear Institute leaves behind the steampunk setting and plants us firmly back on earth, at least at first. It then becomes a Alice in Wonderland tale. Except Alice is actually a completely unlikable genius necromancer who goes down the rabbit hole intentionally. Oh, and Wonderland is actually the very Lovecraftian Dreamlands.
Cabal is contacted by The Fear Institute, which seems to consist of three men with a key to the dreamlands who want to rid the land of irrational fear by finding a mcguffin. He takes the job, helps them get in and acts as a guide in their adventure. A heartless, aloof, unlikeable guide.
Really ones’ enjoyment of the series, and thus this book, is going to come down to how much they like Cable as a protagonist. After all this is a man described as having “many faults, several of which were also capital crimes.” He takes no joy in killing but does it casually a few times, considers his traveling companions as fodder for whatever may want to eat them (the old hiker with running shoes vs the bear joke came to mind) and is utterly committed to one goal. He also has sarcasm down to an art, and it is only made better by the author’s narration behind it. His occasional acts of kindness stand out so much that makes them almost seem sweet, until I remembered all the other things he has done.
Despite its grim nature and decently high death count the book actually feels like a light hearted romp at times. Obviously the humor helps. But it also is quick paced, bouncing between a few dream inspired challenges and monsters. An island battle in which the expected monster has found to be wiped out by something much worse was a delight, especially once the new monster’s story is fully revealed.
Really my only knock on the book is the last ten percent of it or so. I am actually about to place the book in some illustrious company among works of literature, ‘Return of the King’ and ‘The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn.’ Where is this idiot reviewer going with this you ask? Both are good books (well, great in the case of Twain) that should have ended much sooner than they did. I didn’t need the Hobbits return to the Shire. I didn’t need Tom Sawyer to show up at all. And ‘The Fear Institute’ had a perfect ending to me, the first time. It was interesting and surprisingly moving. Then it felt like the author had an alternative ending in mind, couldn’t decide between the two, and jammed them both in. The actual ending was interesting, but something of a let down after what I felt should have been the real conclusion.
Almost a four star read for me; not quite as good as the first in the series but much better than the second. Unfortunately that ending had me looking at the kindle status bar a bit too much wondering what was going on.
Ok, so there is the real world, known as Mundanus to those who know of the other worlds. There is Exilium, home of the Fae, and a vFantasy Review Barn
Ok, so there is the real world, known as Mundanus to those who know of the other worlds. There is Exilium, home of the Fae, and a very dangerous place for mortals. But in between, there is the Nether, with is neither here nor there. In this land live the Great Families, mortal, but fae touched and magical. While in the Nether they do not age, and life seems to be a nothing but a string of social climbing and political posturing between the great families.
Our heroine Catherine, Cathy for short, has managed to hid from her family and patron in Mundanus, living a typical college student life. But as the story begins the Fae known as Lord Poppy finds her, strips off the protection that hid her, and gives her three wishes ( and anyone used to ‘fairy tales’ knows this is more curse than gift). Forced home Cathy is quickly woven into the petty (but perhaps deadly) politics that make up life in the Nether. Something sinister is happening in the Nether though, as the Master of Ceremonies is missing. A gate keeper of sorts, his disappearance is noticed in Mundanus as well. Enter Max, an Arbiter (which appears to be some kind of border patrol between the magical and non). Originally searching for corruption within his ranks, he gets dragged into the disappearance by a sorcerer. Lastly there is one witness to whatever happened, a mundane named Sam. Unfortunately, Sam was drunk when he saw.. something.. and may have a magical charm blocking the memory as well.
Confused? Don’t worry, the author does a decent job of easing a reader into the new world as the characters travel between the different realms. Most of the story follows Cathy, who is entertaining to read about. Considered ‘plain’ by Nether standards, she fell in love with the Mundane world, even going so far as having a boyfriend. Going back to being a ‘puppet’ of the Fae in the Nether grinds on her horribly. While she never stops fighting for her own personal freedom, for most the story she has little control over her own life; where she lives, where she goes, even a promised marriage are all out of her control. Max is an interesting character as well. As an Arbiter his soul is literal taken from his body. What this does is make him almost emotionless, unless he is near the chain that holds his soul. It was a strange but interesting plot device, and at times it worked well, though it was a bit clunky in the execution.
I enjoyed the unique take on fairy realms, by adding the Nether there was one more level between the Fae and humanity. Some neat ideas were present, such the Great Families needed to own the property on both sides for it to be binding. And when it came to the story itself, I found myself staying up late to finish after a fairly slow start.
So there are a lot of interesting ideas, and the plot was enjoyable enough for me to stay up late to finish. That was good. But I have to admit, there was too much about this world that I just didn’t believe in, which is a problem for a fantasy book. I can’t figure out what the Arbiter’s really are policing, nor where they get their authority. There are vague references to a treaty, but no explanation as to why the Fae should fear them at all. The Great Families have a thriving economy, but no indication of what it is based on. No one in the Nether seems to work (outside of servants), but they are not true Fae, so they are not just living on magic. There are hints that the Great Families trade in things other than money (wishes, dreams, etc), but they also had a heavy hand in the economy of Mundanus, with no real indication of how. It got frustrating. Other little things; why would a family distrustful of technology use a car because they are afraid of trains? How could a sorcery be in contract with agents in Mundanus like Max but be so unaware of what technology is useful for, even if he refuses to use it? Why did they seem to move with humanity right up to Victorian times, they decide to stop?
And while this was certainly the first in a series, and therefore allowed to have some loose threads, this book left some loose threads completely ignored. Why was Sam protected by Lord Iron, when no one seems to know who that is? Why was Max concerned about Titanium used to mend his broken bones? I have lots of questions, and I am not sure many of them are set to be answered.
It was a good book, and a real page turner. I will probably be reading the next in the series, because I enjoyed most of it, and love fairy tales of all kinds. But I sure wish I believed in the world the author built a bit more.