Ok, so there is the real world, known as Mundanus to those who know of the other worlds. There is Exilium, home of the Fae, and a very dangerous place for mortals. But in between, there is the Nether, with is neither here nor there. In this land live the Great Families, mortal, but fae touched and magical. While in the Nether they do not age, and life seems to be a nothing but a string of social climbing and political posturing between the great families.
Our heroine Catherine, Cathy for short, has managed to hid from her family and patron in Mundanus, living a typical college student life. But as the story begins the Fae known as Lord Poppy finds her, strips off the protection that hid her, and gives her three wishes ( and anyone used to ‘fairy tales’ knows this is more curse than gift). Forced home Cathy is quickly woven into the petty (but perhaps deadly) politics that make up life in the Nether. Something sinister is happening in the Nether though, as the Master of Ceremonies is missing. A gate keeper of sorts, his disappearance is noticed in Mundanus as well. Enter Max, an Arbiter (which appears to be some kind of border patrol between the magical and non). Originally searching for corruption within his ranks, he gets dragged into the disappearance by a sorcerer. Lastly there is one witness to whatever happened, a mundane named Sam. Unfortunately, Sam was drunk when he saw.. something.. and may have a magical charm blocking the memory as well.
Confused? Don’t worry, the author does a decent job of easing a reader into the new world as the characters travel between the different realms. Most of the story follows Cathy, who is entertaining to read about. Considered ‘plain’ by Nether standards, she fell in love with the Mundane world, even going so far as having a boyfriend. Going back to being a ‘puppet’ of the Fae in the Nether grinds on her horribly. While she never stops fighting for her own personal freedom, for most the story she has little control over her own life; where she lives, where she goes, even a promised marriage are all out of her control. Max is an interesting character as well. As an Arbiter his soul is literal taken from his body. What this does is make him almost emotionless, unless he is near the chain that holds his soul. It was a strange but interesting plot device, and at times it worked well, though it was a bit clunky in the execution.
I enjoyed the unique take on fairy realms, by adding the Nether there was one more level between the Fae and humanity. Some neat ideas were present, such the Great Families needed to own the property on both sides for it to be binding. And when it came to the story itself, I found myself staying up late to finish after a fairly slow start.
So there are a lot of interesting ideas, and the plot was enjoyable enough for me to stay up late to finish. That was good. But I have to admit, there was too much about this world that I just didn’t believe in, which is a problem for a fantasy book. I can’t figure out what the Arbiter’s really are policing, nor where they get their authority. There are vague references to a treaty, but no explanation as to why the Fae should fear them at all. The Great Families have a thriving economy, but no indication of what it is based on. No one in the Nether seems to work (outside of servants), but they are not true Fae, so they are not just living on magic. There are hints that the Great Families trade in things other than money (wishes, dreams, etc), but they also had a heavy hand in the economy of Mundanus, with no real indication of how. It got frustrating. Other little things; why would a family distrustful of technology use a car because they are afraid of trains? How could a sorcery be in contract with agents in Mundanus like Max but be so unaware of what technology is useful for, even if he refuses to use it? Why did they seem to move with humanity right up to Victorian times, they decide to stop?
And while this was certainly the first in a series, and therefore allowed to have some loose threads, this book left some loose threads completely ignored. Why was Sam protected by Lord Iron, when no one seems to know who that is? Why was Max concerned about Titanium used to mend his broken bones? I have lots of questions, and I am not sure many of them are set to be answered.
It was a good book, and a real page turner. I will probably be reading the next in the series, because I enjoyed most of it, and love fairy tales of all kinds. But I sure wish I believed in the world the author built a bit more.
Advanced reading copy provided by publisher.