I started reading this because I have just been absolutely spun by Emma Newman's Planetfall, which is going to be up for like a million awards, mark my words. Planetfall is fucking aces. I had Ms Newman's Between Two Thorns in my ereader, along with its sequel, because I'd requested them a million years ago from Netgalley, and hadn't gotten to them. The usual.
Now, reading back in an author's catalog is always a dicey operation. Most writers, if they don't become insanely successful and therefore insulated from real criticism, just get better as they write. In my limited experience writing novels, I can see why: you have to work out all your anxiety and influence, learn how to keep the shape of something as large as a novel in your mind so you can spool it out in a pacing that makes sense. You have to grasp around in the dark for that third rail, the one that is the spine of the thing and coursing with electricity, and then hold that fucker for as long as you can stand it.
For beloved authors, reading though the back catalog can be a revelation. I don't really have the patience for this anymore, given my age and general decrepitude, but back when I was a lass, I would mow down just scads of early novels. When you're dealing with 70s science fiction writers, this is not an insignificant task. Those fuckers wrote copiously. Hell, even the literary writers often have a huge and mostly out of print back catalog, things like Atwood's Life Before Man, or the only novel that literary critic and your harrumphing Jewish uncle, Harold Bloom, ever wrote.
Reading the back catalog of an author you adore can chart the range of an artist from the first promising beginnings to the stuff that got its hooks in so hard it made you read a half dozen inconsequential novels. I read so much fucking early Herbert on the strength of Dune, so much. Some of that shit I literally threw against the wall, because psychic cheese is such a bad idea. But some of it...The Dosadi Experiment is totally worthy, interesting in its own right, but then also squicky as hell and an obvious antecedent to Dune. Not sure even what to think of the The Jesus Incident and all related novels; the 70s strike me as a delirious time when it comes to religion slash whatever the fuck.
Which is my long winded way of saying that Between Two Thorns did not work for me. I feel like there's an interesting premise, and a lot of potential, but it bled out into common first novelist mistakes, from pacing to character to just general shit like rising action and a resolution. First major problem: I could not tell you exactly who the main characters were in this enterprise, and what exactly their arcs are. There are four or five: a magical enforcer named Max who has a gargoyle sidekick; a girl who is trying to run away from home; Will, said runaway's betrothed; and a deadbeat husband with no particular charm.
Will and the runaway girl, Cathy, live in a stifling Regency-ish netherworld, called, ahem, the Nether. It's halfway between where the fae live and here (called Mundania, sigh), and superimposed onto the real world. So all the Georgian row houses in Bath have entrances into a Nether house that exists in the same space. It's interesting that most of the characters are from this other reality (with the exception of the drunk husband), because usually you have a muggle going into the world instead of magical folk trying to get out.
The Nether society is backwards as fuck, totally regressive, and the open acknowledgement of how truly it sucks is a cool commentary on how those ye olde fairy worlds that urban fantasy heroines are always falling into are actual legit nightmares. Everyone loves a pretty dress, sure, but they tend to accessorize with no voting rights and being chattel. Cathy wants out so bad. She wants to do something other than pump out babies and then be put out to pasture because her husband only needs her for said baby manufacture. Team Cathy.
All this is undercut by drunk husband, Sam, who is forever bitching and fighting with his caricatured ambitious businesswoman wife. Pretty much Sam gets to be the good guy with his lack of ambition and drinking problem, and his wife is a bitchy harpy. Oh, and every problem Sam has with his wife is expressed in sexual jealousy. So, if he has a problem with her boss, he accuses her of fucking her boss. Fuck Sam. It's not that I don't believe there are a million Sams out there in the world, it's that I don't appreciate him being positioned as a hero. (See also: Richard Mayhew.)
There's like a jillion things going on in Between Two Thorns, and I had a really hard time figuring out how all those plotlines fit together, and then when they did, it felt like a leftdown. Because there's no real arc to the story, I felt like this book just ended when it hit novel length, and then the next book just starts up, but she doesn't do any exposition or anything for people who might have waited a year between novels (or who were just confused, ahem.) So, this was fine, and there were some interesting ideas in this world, but novel itself is a bit of a mess. Go read Planetfall instead, srsly.