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Diversion Books, August 2016
This is the fourth book in the Split Worlds series from Emma Newman, coming after a gap of nearly three years. If you haven't read the other books, this isn't a good place to start: not because it's inaccessible - she makes sure, without info dumping, to remind the reader what's been going on - it's more that this inevitably, reveals things which happened in the earlier books. You will want to spend more time in the Split Worlds so it's much better to go back and read the others (Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name and All is Fair) in order. (Links are to my old Amazon reviews of the books, which I've tidied up and resposted here). I've written this review on the assumption that you have done that, so there are spoilers here for them, and I'm not going to explain who the Fae are, or the Elemental Court or the Arbiters.
The publication gap was unfortunate for several reasons. First, this is a cracking series and it was frustrating to have to wait for more. Also, the action in this book picks up only a few days after All is Fair ended, so the flow especially broken. Also, rereading online reviews, it seems to have led some readers - fantasy trilogies being so common - to believe that the first three books were a self-contained trilogy and so to complain that things were left unresolved. While I'd defend the right of any author to leave things unresolved if they want, that's unfair. The three strands in these books - Cathy and her forced marriage to horrible rapist husband Will, Sam (Lord Iron's) exploration of his inheritance and newly gained powers, and the adventures of Arbiter Max - have been running in parallel through all the books and only gradually coming together, but that did accelerate in All is Fair giving a degree of closure, but making it clear that there was much more to come.
A Little Knowledge takes this forward but with an even stronger unifying theme.
Cathy has stuck with Will, it becomes clear, not only because of the Charm he used on her (without her knowing) but because she thinks she can use his new role as Duke of Londinium to bring about social progress and especially to improve the position of women in the strange world of the Fae-touched. There is a great deal of impassioned, even angry feminism in this book (which is a GOOD thing) showing how the claustrophobic, archaic world of the Fae-touched, with its brokered marriages, male power and stultifying conventions, bears down on women. In point of fact, everyone here - not just the women - is a puppet, with the so-called patroons, the male heads of the various families, answering in turn to the Fae. No-one has much say over their own lives. But the men at least have the illusion of some control - and they have the women to bully and sneer at - so they're resistant to change. (It could be mistaken for a very deft and biting social commentary, except that, thankfully, our world isn't like that at all is it?)
However, no progress is being made. In reality, change never comes from above and both Cathy and even Will are powerless to actually do anything from within the system that controls them.
Cathy is magnificently angry, frustrated and sweary.
And Will? What can you say about Will? Basically he's an appealing slimeball with a few feeble good intentions.
As the books have progressed, Newman's handling of her characters has developed in subtlety and power and Will is its culmination. He is, I think, at bottom a weak man. In the earlier books there was a moment when it looked as though he might act to help Cathy escape from the political designs of her father, and he was certainly appalled that her father was violent to her. However in the Split Worlds there are no white knights. Will eventually used the magical equivalent of Rohypnol - a Charm spell - on Cathy, and he has even worse in store for her in this book, while all the time telling himself that he's "protecting" her. So he could be a hateful, despicable figure and on one level he is" but instead - the way that Newman writes him - he remains complex and human, almost a tragic hero. (almost). If only he'd learn to cut the puppet strings and stop dancing to another's tune!
At the same time, Sam - now Lord Iron, inheritor of a vast mining empire and also gifted with his own magic, strong against the Fae - is learning the same lesson as Cathy. The other members of the Elemental Court are not going to listen to him, reform, and begin respecting the environment and their workers. Power will not reform itself just because you have good intentions.
Whatever is to be done - both in the Elemental Court and in the Nether, the world of the Fae - isn't going to come till those puppet strings are cut.
I felt this was easily the best book in the series so far, not simply because the pace has picked up - though it has - but because of the confidence of the writing, and the way the central dilemma is faced up to rather than being fudged. Fantasy is often thought of as an inherently conservative genre: all you have to do to put things right is follow the Prophecy, restore the True King or find the Chosen One (who is often the True King disguise) and accompany him (usually him) on his quest. The Split Worlds emphatically turns all that upside down - nobody really knows what's going on, not in the mess of Nether politics, not in the spreadsheet fuelled Elemental Court, not in Aqua Sulis where Max the Arbiter tries to rein in the Fae touched. There is no quest, no sense of destiny, and it doesn't offer any easy answers to how things might be made better.
The books deal in big themes and Newman's writing is well matched to them.
Frankly I've no idea what's going to happen and I await the fifth and final book with impatience!