Posted by: trisigmatic | August 7, 2016

When everything is just as awful as it seems

Queen’s Lane at night is quiet, dim, and almost deserted.   If you’re looking for somewhere to imagine yourself in the Nether, or any other fictional version of Oxford, it’s probably as good a place as any.  The glare of the busier streets is masked by the high walls of the buildings, and the old-fashioned street lamps glow a warm gold.   It’s really very easy to see Oxenford in this place, suspended disbelief maintaining the illusion beneath the faint and familiar stars.

I’m here tonight–and by ‘here’, I really mean a pub a few minutes walk further down the road–to celebrate the launch of Emma Newman’s latest installment in her Split Worlds series. A Little Knowledge is the fourth book in the series, following on from the brilliant Between Two Thorns, Any Other Name, and All is Fair.  If you’ve not read this series, follow the links and BUY IT NOW. I’d highly recommend it to anyone who likes strongly drawn characters with wit, flaws and passion, thrilling mysteries, cracking good world-building, political intrigue, magic, feminism, evil fae, genuine humour, costume dramas, obnoxious relatives and awkward social events, and all the usual generic tropes turned inside out, on their heads and made to dance the fandango.  (Or, any subset of the above – delete as personally applicable.)  

So why am I here, in Ox(en)ford? Besides liking the series immensely, it’s also the occasion for a birthday celebration and a Split Worlds LARP reunion.  And what an amazing event THAT was!  I’d never LARPed before, but it’s one of those experiences that will stay with me forever. A full day in Regency costume, in one of the most amazing locations the UK has to offer, pretending to be part of a shiny, stagnant, stifling and generally all-round shitty dystopian society.  The Split Worlds setting may have all the gloss of fantasy fiction, but it’s nowhere near as different from our own world as we like to pretend.   And that’s the kind of resonance that grabs me as a reader – when a novel starts at the level of ‘gripping read’, and just keeps on leveling up. This series has a depth to it that you don’t often find.

So. There we all were, celebrating merrily with friends old and new, but the upper floor of a pub on a hot day can get a bit much after a while.  Not long after nine, my husband and I escaped the building for a short walk and a bit of a breather.  Oxford being Oxford, and Friday night being Friday night, we made for the quieter streets at first, enjoying the cooling evening air and reflecting on the many different works of fiction that call this place home. Eventually, our path brought us back round to the bustle and noise of Cornmarket Street, and the High Street.  

That was where we first became aware of the dumb bitch.

Dumb bitch isn’t my name for her, obviously. And it’s certainly not her own, but it’s the only one I’ve got. Why? Because it was used frequently, and at volume, by the man she was with. You see couples like this in every town, every weekend, and most of us learn to look away, or unsee, or ignore. Easy enough when both parties are drunk, or obnoxious, or both.

This time, it was different.

We noticed the voices first, which in his case was raised that little bit too high. And then we noticed what was missing. There was no obvious insobriety here. So I kept looking, as surreptitiously as I dared–in the manner of a harried waitress in a busy room, plausibly deniable, doing something far more pressing than seeing what was right in front of her–while more and more details sank their claws into my skin.

He is loud. She is not.

She shifts her feet, sidles away, stands her ground in well-lit places. She doesn’t want to make a scene. She doesn’t want to go unseen. Her voice is low, and measured, but he’s not listening to what she says, doesn’t care about the evidence of the call-history on her phone, doesn’t care for anything she has to say, or anything she is.  Her body language is closed and tight, and his spite and his hands are inches from her eyes.

And we were right there, in the same street, keeping our distance, not daring to get too close. We passed them as they paused, walking at a pace that felt uncomfortably slow. Felt relief as she walked away and he decided not to follow, then despair as he changed his mind and hurried after her once again. We played Lost Tourist outside a pub, faces directed at phones, heart in mouth as we listened.

You’re scaring me, she says. More than once.

Dumb bitch, he calls her.  Often.

We didn’t make eye contact. We kept a low profile. We shared the kind of looks and words that couples share in situations like this, ready to back each other up, careful not to put the other in harm’s way. Sure, there was an unspoken line in the sand, an act of aggression that would push us from observation to action ourselves… and what felt like all the inertia in the world holding us back.

We didn’t walk away. We would have stepped in. And we tell ourselves that’s enough.

Dumb bitch, he called her.

You’re scaring me, she said.

And this is the weight of the world we live in. We can deny it or ignore it as much as we want, but sometimes it really is exactly as awful as it seems. This is a world where the male ego can treat a woman like a thing, in public and at volume, with no concern at all.  Where the intervention of a woman would be ignored, where the intervention of a man would be a dangerous escalation. Where, time and time again, the concerned bystander is rebuffed, disdained, taught not to interfere.

Where a woman can say with chilling, quiet clarity that she is scared, and no-one does a thing.

Dumb bitch, he called her.

You’re scaring me, she said.

I’m sorry, I say, almost as much to myself as to her. I’m sorry, but I don’t know what to do.

We didn’t walk away. We would have stepped in. And it wasn’t anything fucking like enough.

I hated myself for staying silent. And I hated myself for being just as concerned by what I saw in the mirror of my mind than what was happening right there and then. For being passive, and weak, and a girl. Because she didn’t know we were there for her. She was alone. She was alone, and abused, with the kind of violence that leaves no visible marks, no evidence of assault, no proof you can hold up to the world that says that this is wrong and it is not my fault.

And he was loud, and unafraid, and people saw and witnessed and did nothing at all.

And maybe it all blew over. Maybe they made up, and he apologised profusely, and it never happened again. And maybe, just maybe, she went home and slowly convinced herself that the balance of fault lay that little bit closer to her, that his behaviour was something she deserved, that our collective, complicit silence saw nothing wrong with it at all.

My money’s on the latter.

She left.

He followed.

We went back inside.


Is feminism important in the 21st century? Is its inclusion important in fiction?  My answer to both questions is a resounding Fuck, yes. Because yes-it-fucking-IS, along with a whole range of other intersecting angles on how we engage with our fellow humans and the wider world.

In A Little Knowledge, Cathy, Sam and Will are all in positions where it’s easy to assume they have more agency than ever before. They have choices to make regarding their individual goals, and lives are still in the balance. But do you fight for your life, the lives of those you love, or the ideals that define who you are and whether you can bear to live with yourself at all?  It’s a tense and immensely entertaining read, and I found myself immediately wanting to re-read the series again right from the start, reassessing everything I thought I understood about these characters and their disparate motivations, which are just as complex as you’d expect from an author of Newman’s calibre.  Everyone’s on their own personal road to hell, and nothing’s going to work out easily just because the readers and the author herself are fundamentally on the side of the good guys.  Because life isn’t like that. Life is inherently unfair, even before you add all of our unintentional fuck-ups to the equation.

But as Lucy Rhoeas-Papaver says at one point in the story, You can be better than this.

I found some small forgiveness reading this book. Growth of character doesn’t necessarily come hand in hand with a happy resolution, nor does it magic away one’s human flaws. You can’t save everyone. You can’t always save yourself. But you can learn from it for next time, and keep bloody trying.

You need to. Because for too many people, everything really is as awful as it seems.

We can all be better than this.


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