It's been a long four months since I reviewed the last novel in Emma Newman's 'Split Worlds' series, but that's because I read this third entry, didn't take any notes, let it sit and then decided to re-read to review properly. What I found was that it was just as much fun second time through, even so recently after the first. As befits the middle book, albeit the third of five rather than the usual second of three, it's a pivot, and a very well-crafted one.
For those following along, our characters have been firmly introduced and firmly established. At this point, the author is firmly setting their directions in place for the rest of the series. Each of them has learned a great deal in the two books thus far and has either found a new purpose or finds it here in the third.
Cathy is now the Duchess of Londinium, deciding to stay in the Nether to fight injustice from within. After the death of Sam's estranged wife, he finds that he is surprisingly hired by her employer, Lord Iron, who clearly sees something in him. Ekstrand, the mad sorcerer, decides to react to the murders of all but one of his colleagues by killing off the last one, assuming that he must have been the one behind it. Max, the only arbiter left in Bath, is still trying to piece together the big picture, especially given that his boss isn't firing on all cylinders.
That's a more substantial back cover blurb than the one provided, spoilers for those who haven't read the first two books but essential knowledge to begin the third. I'll also add that the Agency comes into serious focus this time out. Max and Ekstrand take it over, given some of what they discover here, but Cathy's efforts to thwart it have led Bennett, one of its more prominent officials, to blackmail her, using magic to prevent her getting out of it. The Agency isn't something we knew much about until this novel, but we head into book four knowing what it is, why it's so important and why many actions taken here, not least what Will and Cathy eventually get up to, will resonate a great deal within the rest of the series.
None of that will make much sense to anyone who hasn't read this far in the series, but those who have still have much to learn. Discovery is a big part of this book, not just for us but for all the key characters involved. Cathy finds out quite a lot of things, her seeking out of her old teacher, Miss Rainer, having many ramifications, and she has the balls to act on what she finds. One of the joys of this series is watching Cathy emerge from a position of weakness to one of strength, where she can bring long awaited change. Of course, her former patroon, Lord Poppy, has a big part in this and we still don't know why.
Her husband, Will, is also growing and it's almost as great to see that. He's always had power; though greater has been thrust upon him, but he's not as willing to act as his new wife. She's a good influence on him and there are some great moments here when they start to become a true partnership, even though neither wanted the other to begin with. That's the sort of romance that's hardest to write and Emma Newman handles it well. Will's also very much a complex character. He's a good Duke who tries to be a great one, but he's three times a murderer. He's a good man, but he's stuck in circumstances fashioned by others that stick in his craw. I'm looking forward to the revelations in the next two books of how he'll find a position where his morals can be at ease.
Sam's discovery I won't spoil but it's a big one and, after a couple of books wandering around mostly getting in the way, this book is one huge story arc for him. How he'll begin the fourth novel simply couldn't be any more different to how he began this third, but there is meaning to how and why that happens and the irony behind it, to which only he and we are privy, is truly glorious.
Ekstrand is the wild card, mad as a hatter but still a powerful sorcerer, all the more powerful given that there's now only one other to stand against him: Rupert in Oxenford, who becomes a key player this time out, given that he shows up as part of one subplot and is promptly dragged unwillingly into another. There's a lot of that here; the subplots refuse to leave each other alone, though we're far from the point where everything is clear to everyone. He works as a fantastic contrast to Margritte as well, two characters who couldn't appear any more different, but who share certain characteristics and motivations.
These books are surprisingly quick reads, given that there's so much going on within them. I have no idea what techniques Emma Newman used to map out the way her characters would grow, change and impact each other, but it's a complex dance which won't be fully understood until the fifth book is done. I have seen the suggestion that this was originally a trilogy; it's hard to believe that, given how much is quite clearly still to come. It feels very much like a middle book, where our focal points have grown and the tide has finally turned.
I'm eager to see how well things flow into book four. There's a real momentum at the end of this book that feels like everything should be downhill from here, but there are plenty of factors ready to hurl obstacles in the way, some of them powerful enough to change everything and keep the surprises coming, as I'm sure will happen. In particular, we're still at a loss as to what the fae have in mind, sitting back in Exilium playing their long games; there are reasons why the arbiters call them puppeteers and the fae-touched - puppets. Lord Iris and Lord Poppy both have goals, not that we know what they are, and they're working towards them. Sam is the wildcard who's likely to mess with them the most, but there are so many possibilities. Three books in of five, that's fantastic to realise all on its own. ~~ Hal C F Astell
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