A Local Habitation by Seanan McGuire

Rating 6.5/10
Where were you at the time of the murder?" Wandering off on my own

Since my lady and I had both enjoyed Rosemary and Rue, we decided to try A Local Habitation as one of our cooperative reading ventures, returning to the world of October Daye, Private Investigator and Changeling, and her life lived somewhere between modern day California and the shifting political courts, magical creatures and strange politics of the immortal Fae. Rosemary and Rue had seen Toby recover from the fourteen years she'd spent as a fish, confront her past, realize her friendships and finally take up where she left off, promising more adventures and trials to come, not to mention leaving many avenues to be explored, perhaps even a little too many.

One trend in urban fantasy I have noticed previously, and another reason I've been less keen on the genre overall, is the "monster of the week" syndrome. This is where each book is the werewolf book, or the telepath book or the living plants book, a format which would be more that of an on running weekly TV series than a set of novels. While on the one hand I am always a fan of new exploration and I certainly have enjoyed seeing different authors’ takes on familiar elements of folklore, on the other hand it can often make matters feel a little static and safe. We all know after all what a vampire or a telepath is, and too much reliance on the familiar can sometimes make a supposedly dangerous otherworld a bit too comfortable, especially because not all authors are able to give a new twist to an old monster every time, (even Rowling here failed a little with the giants).

Having a “monster of the week” also causes something of a predictable structure for a series, with each book simply ending with a "case closed for this week", not the least because a large percentage of urban fantasy novels tend to feature detectives as protagonists. I was therefore wondering if A Local Habitation, after the introduction we got in the first book would follow this trend, introducing one specific Fae type, creature or concept as the main theme or antagonist. To my pleasant surprise though, this was not the case. Certainly we run into a few new types of Fae, however they are very much just parts of the plot, introduced as Toby comes across them as opposed to being the main focus of the action, indeed the way McGuire paces her revelations and information about the Fae world is again extremely well delivered and calculated, and I definitely credit McGuire for the fact that even now two books in, the Fae realm with its delicate magic, disguises and politics still feels just as strange and alien as when we first stumbled into it in Rosemary and Rue.

Another reason I worried that the weekly monster might raise its ugly head, is that there is no denying that the book's basic setup does take a rather standard turn. As a favour to Duke Sylvester Torquill, Toby agrees to journey to the county of Tamed Lightning, aka an Alh computer firm and check in on Sylvester's daughter January. Needless to say the trope of the tough protagonist having to provide protection to an unwilling recipient is rather a recognizable one, and my lady and I were laying bets when the first corpse would show up. The story then turned into something which myself and any old school Doctor Who fan would recognize, the good old bus or base under siege formula, a small group of characters in an isolated location being picked off gradually one by one by an unknown menace or murderer, trying to fit together all the clues before they all wind up dead.

One thing which I did particularly like in McGuire’s take on this plot, was the fact that the location, setting and characters were rather unique. From office buildings with dark mazes of cubicles, to third floor windows that opened on the ground, to a quite surprising take on a dryad. McGuire is also for the most part careful enough with her characters to give each enough personality and individuality to make them distinct, meaning that each new corpse is a genuine shock, and I did find myself caring as to who might be up for the chop next.

Speaking of character, I will admit I was a little disappointed that we didn't see more of the cast of Rosemary and Rue return here, though the few familiar faces we did see were more than welcome. These included the grumpy sea witch known as The Luidaeg, Tybold, the sarcastic yet weirdly efficient king of cats, and Quentin, Sylvester's sixteen year old paige whom October mentors throughout the book. Seeing Quentin's attitude change and Quentin grow up was genuinely appealing, especially since once again we see Toby at her best when being protective of children, albeit her general cynicism still shows through. I will confess Toby was a little less likable here, mostly because she did seem overly hostile without reason to those around her, though the fact that often McGuire wrote Toby's attitude in a rather ironic way does make me wonder if she intended that readers be a little  exasperated with Toby on occasion.

This also provided the book with both a deal of its humour, and also unfortunately an understandable, if rather less than pleasant plot device, as once again we see Toby running into a romantic encounter with an attractive man rather too quickly, and yet at the same time warning Quentin off a similar attraction to a lady. I'm fairly sure though that this inconsistency was quite intentional, or at least both my lady and I found the irony in the situation more amusing than irritating.

What however was more than a little irksome, was the fact that October, supposedly an experienced private investigator did seem to be slightly slow on the uptake. Missing clues which both my lady and I found more than a little obvious, and accepting rather suspect alibis (for example she rules out several suspects simply because they were friends or lovers of the victims).
Also, I found it less than convincing that October, despite working in both the human and Fae worlds seemed to miss a lot of fairly standard, mundane investigation techniques such as asking the locations of the various suspects at the times when murders take place, a tactic which would have actually discovered the culprit. Also, even though she engages in long sermons of how everyone should keep safe, rather too often we saw her quite happy with characters wandering off alone, or taking no account of where people were. Given the increasingly tense atmosphere throughout the latter part of the book, this seemed rather an oversight, and also one where the author was plainly using October's lack of judgement to drag matters out, after all if everyone had stayed together the murderer might have been outed more quickly. Obviously McGuire needed to structure her mystery plot so as to come together towards the book's conclusion, but generally there are better ways to do this than simply by the main character failing to follow through on their attempts to keep others safe or realize the relatively obvious.

While October's apparent density felt frustrating on occasions, especially given that we rather too quickly get down to only a few possible suspects, some of the individual incidents in the plot are themselves definitely satisfying. As compared to the first book, McGuire didn't seem to feel the need for as much action for action's sake here, and the build up, atmosphere and dips into horror were definitely fun to read. One especially notable section involved October summoning the Night Haunts, the Fae responsible for taking the corpses of dead Faery and replacing them with recognizable human bodies to keep their world a secret. This not only dealt with one of my major gripes from the first book, turning The Night Haunts into more than just a convenience, but also made for a very poignant confrontation and one which harked back tragically to Rosemary and Rue.

Overall McGuire’s style here is the efficient, fast paced workmanlike affair we saw previously, though whether through the ironic depictions of characters or simply odd turns of phrase, A Local Habitation was in general a rather more humorous book to read, despite the fact that McGuire is still careful to keep the Faery world feeling as unknowable as it does. Indeed I will credit McGuire for managing to make Toby a decidedly flawed and deeply cynical character, and yet keep the Fae world feeling exotic. She also, (I'm pleased to say), doesn't give any easy ways out of confrontations, and though the magic in the book is still rather amorphous, October's inherent weakness compared to full blooded Fae, and the need to solve things in a more down to earth physical way are still apparent.

Unfortunately, the actual conclusion of the mystery was rather disappointing. The villain turned out to be a more than cliché one, with ranting speeches, recognizable motives and a decidedly Hollywood and quite predictable downfall, the fact that my lady and I had also identified this villain considerably sooner than October didn't help either.

All in all I was a little disappointed with A Local Habitation. The book felt far more predictable, and despite the large body count, safe than Rosemary and rue did. October seemed a slightly less likeable character despite her humour and ironic depiction, and in general  the book had less of the unique flavour that the first entry in the series had, especially considering that we didn't get any hints here of an ongoing story, and only a vague promise that there might be  something further to explore next time.

That being said, the book was definitely entertaining and the characters, world and setting were as colourful and vibrant as ever. Where Rosemary and Rue broke new ground, A Local Habitation was definitely a stroll through familiar territory, albeit a pleasant stroll, and I hope McGuire will be a bit more ready to leave the path and strike out into the unknown in the third book.

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