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All Good Things (The Split Worlds, 5)
Diversion Books, 6 June 2017
I bought this book from my local independent bookshop.
This is the 5th and final part of Emma Newman's Split Worlds sequence (quintology?)
Across the previous four, she has spun an extraordinary number of stories and deployed many characters (a list might have been helpful by this stage!) Tying everything together would be a formidable challenge for any author. Doing so - as Newman does in All Good Things - while still keeping the story fresh and maintaining a sense of narrative drive must have been even harder. Yet All Good Things succeeds triumphantly. The book moves closes in on its climax like an ocean liner chasing down the Blue Riband, Newman wringing every last drop of emotion - triumph, despair, rage, fear, acceptance - from both characters and reader. While it's tightly plotted throughout, new elements continue to appear. This series has not has tired itself out, the writing continues to dazzle and the description of Exilium (Newman's fairyland) is seriously haunting and beautiful.
The book goes to some very dark places indeed - including long sections narrated from Will's point of view. We readers have now long known - and Cathy learned at the end of the previous book - that he's a liar, a murder and a rapist, having used magic to obtain her compliance wish his wishes. He continually makes excuses, but it's hard to sympathise with him (and nor should we). Yet this story demands that we stay with him, that, to a degree, we understand him. It's very uncomfortable in places yet makes the book very raw (at the same time we are also seeing Cathy's point of view, with her outrage, shock and PTSD. Rest assures she directs some choice swearing at Will...)
That isn't the only dark aspect. There are several deaths here, including those of well established characters. I felt that in a couple of instances these were handled a bit briefly and at arm's length, but possibly it reflects a desire not to dwell too much on suffering: the fact of what happened remains in the story and perhaps we don't need detail (in both cases the context of the deaths added to the shock - sorry if that sounds a bit convoluted: spoilers).
The redemption, though, is that, for the first time in the series, Cathy is fully aware of what's been done to her and of the realities behind the Fae, the Arbiters and the Elemental Court. And therefore for the first time she is able to fully match herself against her enemies (both persons and things) by practicing magic herself: relentless angry sweary sorceresses FTW! So in All Good Things we get the confrontations and conflict that we've been waiting for - and perhaps a sense of release that very distantly echoes Cathy's sense of liberation. It's been a long time coming but the wait was worthwhile.
Some thoughts on the series as a whole may be in order. I think these books are not only a terrific example of storytelling but, with its completion, we can now see that the books are also very important in the present moment of SFF storytelling. Newman has taken an old fantasy idea - the possibility of a fairyland and of dealings with those who live in it - and upended things, creating a mythology of sorts, and one that doesn't retread tired ideas about princesses, princesses and magic. Instead her theme is power: individual power, power structures and our relationships and responses to them. The books explore a number of possible reactions to the codified privilege embodied in the Spilt Worlds - acquiescence, quiet dissent, collaboration (get to the top and then we'll sort things out - Will's self justifying refrain right to the very end), more or less polite agitation and, in this book, an additional option, burning the whole place down. (But what then?)
It's clear that, by this point, nobody's hands are totally clean (though some are dirtier than others), nobody has a certain answer, and nobody really knows what's going on. To a degree everyone here is a victim, but that doesn't make them all innocent.
That's not only true of the Fae and the puppets of Society - it applies too to the resource barons of the Elemental Court where Sam faces the same dilemmas as Cathy, to the Arbiter Max and his Gargoyle and to the Sorcerors as well. (Let me just taken a few moments to appreciate how Newman also twists the trope of the bluff, no nonsense industrialist - that would be Lord Iron - in contrast to the foppish toffs (the Fae touched).
What's the answer? Not an easy one, I'm afraid. Newman shows courage I think in even raising these issues - this definitely isn't escapist fantasy - and it would be wrong to expect her to announce an entire political platform as well. Truth, friends and courage feature: as Cathy goes into her future at the end of the book it's clear that more challenges are ahead and that she will need all those. A "Happily ever after" is far from certain, although taking command of one's own life is a beginning.
In short: I loved this book, and the whole sequence. The writing starts good and gets better and better and the books deserve a wide audience. I'm grateful to Emma for writing them - I hope they find and delight many, many readers for a long time to come.