An Artificial Night by Seanan McGuire

An Artificial Night book cover
Rating 8.4/10
Certainly not too dark for me

After finding A Local Habitation a slight step downwards from the series opening, I wasn’t perhaps as eager to get back to the world of October Daye as I might have been. However, when I ran across a review which criticised the book as being a little too dark my interest was piqued, indeed you could say from that point the book had my name on it. Sure enough, I was not disappointed as this is certainly the darkest entry in the series thus far. Also however, I wasn't disappointed on a more general level, since unlike the previous volume this book exceeded my expectations and definitely started fulfilling the promise of Rosemary and Rue.

Like the premise for A Local Habitation, An Artificial Night begins with something of a standard plot for a detective story. October Daye, Fae changeling, knight of Shadowed Hills and private investigator learns that the children of her best friends, Mitch and Stacey, have been kidnapped in the night. Further investigation around San Francisco and the Fae kingdoms reveals that these are just part of a series of abductions of both immortal and mortal children.

A trail of riddles quickly leads October to the powerful firstborn Fae Blind Michael, leader of his own wild hunt, and of course in her own inimitably blunt force way Toby sets out for Blind Michael’s realm to get the children back, ignoring the appearance of May Daye, Toby’s fetch, an incarnation of her looming death.

Though the conceit of kicking off a crime novel with the kidnapping of the main character's' friends’ loved one goes right back to Sherlock Holmes and possibly before, McGuire quickly abandons anything like a standard detective story structure. We very quickly learn that Blind Michael is behind the kidnappings, and thus the first half of the book involves Toby’s journey to Blind Michael’s realm to try and rescue the children. This does make An Artificial Night the most traditional plot we’ve seen in the series so far. A hero, a villain, a journey and a rescue, and yet McGuire’s execution of this plot is masterful.

Though the beginning of the book where we meet Stacy, Mitch and their children is slightly blatant emotional manipulation, at the same time McGuire manages to stay very much on the right side of cuteness or stereotypes, indeed I applaud the way McGuire manages to make the children both appealing, and yet wonderfully individual. Once we get into Blind Michael’s realm the fun really begins. The rather mythical approach to magic is very evident here, and I particularly liked the way that even getting into Blind Michael’s realm takes an understanding of arcane, symbolic and mythical rules. This is very much the grim fairy tale style depiction of the realm of Fae, the place where leaving the forest path or forgetting a rhyme can mean quick and brutal death.

Blind Michael’s realm itself is a dark, fantastic landscape, very much a world unto itself and a fascinating place to explore and one in which October feels decidedly out of her depth. Likewise, when we find out what Blind Michael actually wants children for, the truth of the matter is shocking, wrong and unexpected, especially given one extremely clever plot conceit McGuire employs which both changes October’s perspective on events, and makes the idea of what Blind Michael does to the kidnapped children all the more close to home.

While October’s return from Blind Michael’s realm did feel a little too easy (indeed I was waiting for something to go wrong), it is fairly obvious that this is only a temporary reprieve and October will be needing to go back, and returning to San Fransisco did give McGuire a chance to further explore characters.

I appreciated that in this volume McGuire seemed more bent on exploring the characters we have than introducing a host of new ones. We have previously only briefly heard about October’s friends Mitch and Stacy, and yet here they appear in full force and indeed are an impetus for the plot, while many of October’s other friends from Rosemary and Rue return. In particular, I was very pleased An Artificial Night heavily involved The Luidaeg, the extremely powerful, decidedly grumpy sea witch, who manages to remain slightly alien and still just a little intimidating despite the fact she's very much Toby's friend at this point and we're now quite familiar with her. Other than Blind Michael himself, the only major new character we see a lot of is October’s fetch, the amusingly named May Daye. Though in general a more serious book than A Local Habitation, I can say the idea of October interacting with a clone of herself, and getting exasperated at some of the things May does which mimic October’s own personality did provide a good bit of humour.

Of course, not all the character notes are perfect here. October’s childhood friend Connor the Selkie, whom she still has feelings for despite him being married started to skate a bit too close to being a fairly bland nice guy male love interest rather than a character in his own right. There was even the conversation in which he offered October his help, she refused because she didn’t want to put him in danger, and he sulked, which in turn exasperated October leading to some rather petty tension. Likewise in terms of less than original notes, I was a little sorry that October herself and others around her started to talk rather blatantly of her being “a hero”. When Dare did this in Rosemary and Rue it was very effective, since you got the strong impression that October was a hero to Dare specifically, which was more than understandable given Dare and Toby's similar history. Here however “hero” is used as a far more generic term, and in some senses one which seemed more a matter of the author wanting to drum up praise for her protagonist, than something within the universe which either October or those around her would think (it’s comparatively rare that people think of themselves as heroes, or have their friends do so).

Speaking of October herself, I didn’t appreciate that as in A Local Habitation, McGuire seemed to feel the need to make her protagonist rather dim. Several times in the book October receives fairly obvious riddles or clues and yet seems to stumble over the answers, for example early on she is told to “ask the moon”, and seems to utterly forget that the person who was virtually her second mother is called Luna. I actually don’t really know what McGuire intended with the riddles here. Mostly they occur because Toby asks her friends for information and is told a synonym like the first above example with Luna, due to supposedly some mysterious magical protocol which prevents her friends given straight answers. If an author includes riddles in a book for her/his characters to solve there are various ways this can go. Either the riddles are possible to guess and the character and reader solve them simultaneously, making for more character identification and a pleasant little brain exercise for the reader. Alternatively the riddles are very difficult and open to interpretation, and answers are delayed while either the reader tries to second guess the character, or waits to see what the answer eventually is, as often occurs in fantasy novels with prophecies or visions. However making the riddles easy and the main character fail to guess them just makes the reader feel that the main character is slow on the uptake, and consequently, lose a little respect for that character, indeed with all the hero rhetoric, her fairly direct approach to problem solving and her seeming lack of ability with clues, I confess that currently I’m thinking of October as closer to Conan than Colombo, which is probably not the impression McGuire intended to give of a character who is supposedly a private investigator.

That being said, one thing I did like in character terms was the way that October’s growth from Rosemary and Rue continues, and indeed the fact that part of the final plot resolution was actually a direct and quite uplifting reflection on character development and October’s relations to her friends.

In terms of its pacing and overall writing style I can say An Artificial Night was a decided improvement. McGuire has always been an atmospheric writer and here, especially with Blind Michael and his realm her ability to depict the chilling and otherworldly struck just the right chord. It also seemed that the brief introductions and speedy plot changes which marred previous volumes were less of a problem here, mostly I think because we spend far more time exploring one location as opposed to flitting quickly from place to place. Indeed I noticed that after the return home McGuire seemed to feel she needed to throw in a few slightly superfluous action scenes, as if she feared character development and exploration wouldn’t be enough on their own to hold the reader’s interest, in particular a couple of seemingly pointless attacks and one rather out of place semi comic car chase; I wonder if we'll ever see Toby have a car that lasts more than one book.

One other issue, was that as I already indicated several portions of the plot concerning Blind Michael had resolutions which were a little too easy. McGuire employs a rather blatant magical object as a get out of trouble free card on several occasions, and while some instances of this object being used (including one during the final confrontation with Blind Michael himself), felt more than justified, on other occasions it seemed that McGuire was using said object as a simple way to push the plot forward, for example when October uses it early on to find her way straight to Blind Michael’s halls rather than having to actually search his realm.

Blind Michael himself is definitely the best villain of the series thus far, indeed in a world where far too often authors seem to want to make their villain’s intimidating by attributing to them unexplained aspects such as “powerful” or “magical” as though assigning attribute points in an RPG, Seanan McGuire makes Blind Michael scary by the evidence of the things that he does and the way others speak of him, which is far more effective. Less effective however is the way Blind Michael actually talks when we meet him. Despite a wonderfully dark description and a decided presence, McGuire seems to suffer a similar problem to that Tad Williams did in his early novels, namely an inability to actually write villains with really good dialogue however intimidatingly they might be described.

In one sense, the final confrontation with Blind Michael is certainly satisfying enough, however in another sense it is a little underwhelming, since the way McGuire has blind Michael as so awesome and seemingly unbeatable when it comes to glamour and magic, and yet so absolutely deficient when it comes to actual physical conflict feels actively jarring. McGuire’s explanation for this, that Blind Michael wasn’t used to resistance seems decidedly off, after all the very purpose of a wild hunt is to… well hunt things, and things that are hunted rarely give up without a fight. 
I also didn't like the fact that McGuire played the "blind" card in the final battle, since again what magic Blind Michael used to get around his lack of sight hadn't up until that point seemed particularly deficient, and as with his abilities in combat we would expect anyone capable of leading a wild hunt to also fight effectively Blind or not. Indeed, while it is a rather odd and somewhat unsettling cultural trope that "blind" as a title still unfortunately denotes a person who is mysterious, otherworldly or untrustworthy, McGuire’s employment of this trope probably wouldn't have bothered me if she did not specifically use it as a contributing factor in Blind Michael's downfall. After all there is no reason not to have a scary and amazingly nasty blind villain, (even if he does have to use the mildly offensive soubriquet), however for him to be less effective due to his blindness, especially since up until that point his lack of sight had not been a factor is just plain disappointing, just as having a female villain defeated specifically because she was female would have been.

However Blind Michael aside, the way McGuire handles the consequences and fallout of what happened, especially the consequences to Blind Michael's victims and those around them is extremely well done (I applaud any author who can keep me guessing). Even though there are no indications of a continuous plot or hints as to what might happen in the next volume (aside from the introduction of May), I find myself wanting to read the next book in order to learn where certain characters end up.

Despite one or two uneven places, a slight slackening in the middle, a rather sulky Selkie, a few problems with its mostly very villainous villain and a little too convenient plot device, An Artificial Night was an amazing ride. Atmospheric, tragic, and wonderful at exploring its characters, depicting the world of Fae in all its dark and strange glory, with a rather more likeable, if still occasionally grim changeling as central protagonist. If this represents McGuire getting into her stride with the series, I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what is coming next.

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