Fourth in the Split Worlds series, and in some ways a brand new start after the original trilogy (Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name, All is Fair), A Little Knowledge by Emma Newman brings new opportunities, changes, and challenges to the characters in Newman’s urban fantasy world.
Talking about those characters, their changes, and what Newman does with them is necessarily spoilery for the first three novels. This review assumes that you are all right with spoilers, or you have read the first three novels.
Newman’s title “A Little Knowledge” seems to invoke the often misquoted line from a poem by Alexander Pope, “A little learning is a dangerous thing”. And that is definitely true of the three major protagonists in the novel. All of them have been raised to positions of power, with ideas of what to do with that power, but find that the actual application and use of that power for what they want and need to do is much trickier than they ever expected. Even in an urban fantasy world, there are no magic wands to wave.
Cathy, once a runaway from her family, is now the duchess of Londinium, the shadow version of London in the nether. With her husband William Iris as Duke, she now has the temporal power to try and start to make changes to the horribly patriarchal and sexist world where she grew up, fled, and now has returned to in the bonds of matrimony. Cathy does not quite understand, though, that the customs of Patriarchy are not so easily broken, and that men will fight, and fight dirty, to maintain their power.
Max’s rise to power and position has been a more tragic one. The fall of the sorcerers across England has given him both unexpected rank and also a fundamental weakness to his position since he no longer has the resources to properly police the Fey and their Puppets. Worse, Max knows there is an unofficial sorcerer in Albion, the one that killed the others, and possibly thinks Rupert is dead, too. How can Max do his job as Arbiter, more really THE authority left on that front, and investigate the rogue sorcerer, all on a shoestring of time and materials?
Sam’s rise to power as the heir to Lord Iron, becoming the new Lord Iron, is the least likely rise to power of all three of the main characters. Raised to the role and thrust in the role in short fashion, Sam has to juggle the esoteric nature of Lord Iron along with the non-esoteric nature of suddenly being asked to run a multi-billion-dollar business empire. Sam’s notions about what an ethical company should be doing in terms of ecology and human rights run right into the rapacious desires of his counterparts. Suddenly becoming rich and powerful isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
These character-focused plotlines and threads run through Newman’s A Little Knowledge. As in the previous novels, Newman’s style is to put the screws to her characters, and let the plot and reactions drive the narrative forward, be it Cathy trying to make a change to society, or Max trying to investigate the latest doings of the Families. And when the stories and plots of Newman’s three primary viewpoint characters intersect and cross, real sparks and magic happen. In addition to her three main protagonists, William, who became a viewpoint character midway through the series, continues to be one, here. The William-Cathy relationship, both as a personal one and as a social one as Duke and Duchess, goes through a lot of challenge and change, here. Relationships are hard, especially when both sides have preconceptions and agendas that keep them from completely understanding the other party, and with the varying viewpoints, Newman shows the difficulties and challenges of their new marriage and political union and doesn’t flinch from the potential of the conflict. The other characters get similarly deep treatment, especially in their relationships with other characters. The changes forced on them help show the character change and evolutions they have all undergone since the first novel.
While deep character interactions and conflicts makes it sound like this novel is nothing but conversations, there are also magical investigations, strange rituals, attempted kidnappings, and magical chicanery. While the novel does rely on characters and their agendas rubbing up against each other to drive things forward, there is the occasional dropping of ninjas, as it were, to keep the characters hopping and the plot fresh.
As A Little Knowledge starts a new cycle to the Split Worlds, there are revelations, changes, and surprises about the characters, the social fabric and even the very nature of the Split Worlds themselves. The novel answers a couple of questions I’ve had about the worldbuilding since the first novel, Between Two Thorns, and introduces more that I’d love the answer to. I can only hope that in the characters drawing me into their stories in future volumes, such answers are forthcoming as well.