This novel follows three different characters as their stories intertwine in a fantastical world. First there’s Sam, a middle-aged drunkard with marital problems who find himself running afoul of powerful creatures that he never knew existed. Then there’s Cathy, the daughter of a noble family in the Nether, a world that mirrors our own world (known to those in the Nether as Mundanus). Folk in the Nether are patronized by various Fae overlords, so they have access to magic — but they are also beholden to the dangerous, capricious Fae. Cathy desperately wants to escape her life in the Nether and has been studying at Cambridge in Mundanus, but eventually her family and her Fae patron catch up with her. And finally, there is Max, an Arbiter whose job is to protect mundanes from Fae interference. But something is wrong with the Arbiters in Bath and London, and it just might be connected to a Fae-based power struggle in the Nether.
I think my summary of the plot is pretty confusing; but to be fair, the book itself is pretty confusing too! If you like a lot of world-building, though, you’ll probably find a lot to enjoy. The Nether is essentially a world that is connected to the Fae (although its inhabitants are all humans), and it has the general atmosphere of 18th- or 19th-century England. Cathy is desperate to escape to Mundanus because she doesn’t want to be forced into an arranged marriage and become some man’s property. I found her story easiest to follow, and therefore I enjoyed it the most, although I think Cathy is a bit of a Mary Sue. Max is a more interesting character — I liked the idea that Arbiters’ souls are disconnected from their bodies so that they can remain emotionless and therefore uncorruptible. Nonetheless, I’m still not entirely clear on what Arbiters do, and obviously there is much more to be revealed in the sequels. In fact, my biggest complaint with the book is that it’s really just a setup for the subsequent books; none of the storylines are really resolved. Still, I liked the world-building enough that I will probably give the next book a chance.