A Little Knowledge
by Emma Newman
I genuinely can't explain what this book did or how it did it, but the day I finished A Little Knowledge, I purchased the first book in the series and promptly started reading it. And when I finished the first book, I bought the second. And then the third. I finished the entire series in sequence, one after the other. For those of you who don't know me, it's hard to explain just how out-of-character this is for me: I basically never buy books, and I have absolutely terrible series staying power. Yet without doubt, Emma Newman has gotten more of my money than any other author this year. And I don't really know why.
Because here's the thing about the Split Worlds series: it's insidious. When I read A Little Knowledge, I thought I felt lukewarm about it. As an inveterate and unashamed out-of-order series reader, when I tell you that this is not a good book to start the series with, please take my word for it. Newman may have a gift for worldbuilding and characters, but she has not yet mastered the gentle art of the recap. The Split Worlds is pretty complex and I had no idea what was going on most of the time. Yet I think that was part of the series' appeal. Basically, a long time ago, a cadre of sorcerers split the magic part of the world from the mundane. The fey were banished to Exilium, but they subvert and steal mortals and bring them into the Nether, an intermediate zone between the two worlds where time does not exist. These fey-touched act as puppets for their faerie lords, and their actions are patrolled by the Arbiters, mortals whose souls were dislocated from their bodies to prevent subversion by the fey. The world of the Nether is frozen in semi-Victorian English state, an endless stream of parties and dances and dinners, with women given no more agency than a pet dog.
Into this grim situation blunders Cathy, a child of the fey-touched who ran away to the mundane world and started going to college before she was dragged back to the Nether. As even she realizes:
"Cathy had the delicacy and insight of a cat with its head stuck in a box moving backwards to try and escape it, and she knew it."
Cathy may not have chosen her circumstances, but she's determined to make the best of them, and, more importantly, to change them, both for herself and the other women of the Nether. Even as her efforts heighten tensions between herself and everyone she loves, Cathy remains steadfast:
"But how will things ever change if I don't force them to?"
When I first read the book, I found the circumstances unpleasant and in some ways pointlessly unpleasant, much in the manner of YA dystopians: the setup is so extreme that it doesn't correlate with the world that its readers would inhabit. It's about feminism and agency and self-determinism, but the level of inequality the characters experience is so utterly extreme that I see it as rather a waste of the reader's outrage and disgust. The women of the Nether are constantly prey to rape and violence, and if they don't obey their masters, they can be magically "Dolled, cursed, and Charmed into obedience."
I found Will utterly creepy, and was mystified about how they had gotten together. As he thinks himself:
"He wanted to claim her, possess her and take her fire into himself."
The fact that it is a charmed choker is all too appropriate. As she says to him,
"You want me to be someone I'm not. You want me to play the game, don't you? That's what you mean when you say you want me to work with you. You want me to stop being such a pain in the arse. But what you're really saying is that you want me to stop being who I am."
Suffice it to say that A Little Knowledge is a difficult read, and much of the moral outrage it generated felt anything but constructive. But perhaps the goal is to use extremes to highlight the problems found in a more nuanced way in our world. Apart from sexism, the book also confronts racism and rampant consumerism. Even leavened with Newman's sly wit, it wasn't precisely an easy or pleasant read, yet I was sucked in all the same. I was so driven to understand how the world worked and how the characters got to where they were that I promptly turned around and binge-read the previous three books. In some sense, A Little Knowledge is also a game-changer for the series, putting events into motion that are sure to have serious impact on the Split Worlds. I may still be perplexed as to why I found these books so compulsively readable, but definitely count me in for the next one.
~~I received this book through Netgalley from the publisher, Diversion Publishing, in exchange for my honest review. Quotes were taken from an advanced reader copy and while they may not reflect the final phrasing, I believe they speak to the spirit of the book as a whole.~~
Cross-posted on Goodreads.