Ashes of Honour by Seanan McGuire

Rating 7.0/10
Toby Daye ob-la-da, life goes on

Despite a slight disappointment with One Salt Sea, McGuire has certainly hit the mark far more often than she’s missed in the October Daye series, so diving into the next book for my lady and me was inevitable.

Before leaping into my thoughts on Ashes of Honour, be aware that as with any reviews I write for successive series entries, this will contain spoilers for proceeding works in the series (though not for the book under review). So in other words, if you haven’t read Rosemary and Rue to One Salt Sea, (especially the latter), don’t read this review (McGuire’s books are far more interesting reading than my ramblings anyway).

Ashes of Honour takes place a year after the tragic events of One Salt Sea. October, changeling private detective and Knight of the duchy of Shadowed Hills, has been growing ever more reckless in the year that has passed since she lost both her daughter and her lover. However Toby’s self-imposed mourning is interrupted when her friend and old mentor, the stiff and formal Sir Etienne of Shadowed Hills, asks October for help finding his missing changeling daughter Chelsea (a daughter whose existence he was previously unaware of).

As a half Tuatha de Dannan, like her father Chelsea has the ability to teleport, however Chelsea it transpires is the type of changeling which all pureblood Fae fear, the type who has enormous power and none of the control.

Teleporting at random, Chelsea risks opening doors that were never meant to be opened. Still worse, it seems there is more behind her disappearance than just untrained magic gone awry, and those ready to use a powerful but untrained Tuatha for their own ends.

Despite the rich depiction of its world, and some truly three dimensional characters, there have been occasions in the past where I’ve felt McGuire’s plot construction has been slightly off. While A and C have always been exceptional set pieces the B, the process that links one sequence to another has sometimes smacked of the slightly too convenient, everything from inept villains to sudden coincidences. One reason why I have often felt October is a far better protagonist than she is a detective. This is one novel where that is certainly not the case. Even if we ignore the fact that Etienne had supposedly been watching over his mortal wife for 16 years at a distance yet somehow didn’t notice she had a daughter, the plot construction here is some of the best in the series.

The information October gains about Chelsea, her disappearance, and her powers leads gradually from one point to another, even the unexpected attacks or disasters are not (as in previous books), a villain making an all too convenient mistake or just another attack to keep the action rolling and October’s car mechanic in business, but rather the direct consequences and outgrowths of what is happening. It is also extremely notable that though two out of the previous five books in the series have featured kidnapped children, Ashes of Honour’s plot construction nowhere resembles that of One Salt Sea or Artificial Night.

I particularly liked the way McGuire gives Chelsea a definite personality and presence in events (especially through her formidable human mother Bridget), and yet still maintains the tension and sense of urgency, something which was sorely lacking in One Salt Sea, perhaps because here the consequences of the kidnapping are far less political and far more personal; though undoubtedly Fae politics do have their part to play here.

Character is as always one of McGuire’s strengths and for the most part she does not disappoint. Old friends such as The Luidaeg and Toby’s own squire Quentin make a welcome return and continue to grow, plus for the first time we got to see Etienne as more than a one dimensional honour and formality obsessed knight.

Just as Late Eclipses fleshed out many of the disparities in Rosemary and Rue, so now Ashes of Honour returns to Tamed Lightning, the setting of A Local Habitation; which not only gave us the chance to revisit old friends (particularly April, one of the most unique dryads in literature), but also offer some new perspectives on the murders Toby had solved there and put the series second book into a slightly better context. Setting indeed was one of the major advantages here, since not only were we able to get a more complete look some places such as the Court of Cats we’d previously been to, but also with Chelsea’s teleporting as an impetus we saw more deeply into the realms of faerie than we’d gone before and the hints at darker and more alien places just over the horizon are certainly tantalising, especially this late in a series whose setting is now becoming quite a familiar place. Yet despite this, McGuire never takes the urban out of urban fantasy, and possibly more than in any book since artificial night, we get a sense of the tragic effects contact with the hidden Fae can have upon mortals.

Unfortunately, while most of the cast are drawn in three dimensions with McGuire’s usual care, this does not extend to everyone. Tybalt King of Cats has progressed from irritating, untrustworthy and unattainable, early in the series, to Connor’s rival for Toby’s affections. Here unfortunately he is upgraded straight away to “love interest” and it is not a role that suits him. Though McGuire is too clever a writer to have their relationship based just on Tybalt’s ever dangerous feline machismo, at the same time converting a potentially grey character into a square-jawed hero type who dashes in to save his lady love from danger and breathes romantic urges to her, even explaining his former coldness as “not wanting to get too close” in classic male ideal fashion is just plain disappointing. Admittedly, McGuire does try to give Tybalt a bit of context, a past and history which explains why he was avoiding getting too close to October, but unfortunately this felt far more as a late edition to justify Tybalt’s transformation and explain how Toby ended up with the malkin male model than a genuine character moment.

What is doubly worse about all of this is on the one brief occasion anyone does remember Connor’s existence, he’s actively sneered at. Connor was treated shabbily enough in One Salt Sea, not the least because Toby was spending so much time captivated by the ever gorgeous Tybalt, but for that to go on ignoring and trampling on Connor’s memory is just distasteful. This is particularly bad considering all the mourning Toby has supposedly been doing for the past year has been entirely off stage, thus making it feel as if Connor mattered even less to her. My lady was quite forthright on the subject, asking rather pointedly “what is wrong with nice guys?”.

Indeed, the idea that McGuire (or perhaps Toby) has something against decent men is compounded by a rather serious slip later in the book, in which a new character, again a nice guy simply doing the right thing is literally written off in a highly dismissive manner; I hope McGuire (and Toby), remember his existence in the future, though I fear his shirt was a little too red for that.

Also for the first time in the series I began to see a problem with Toby’s magical powers. One problem which long running urban fantasy series often run into is having their characters effectively “level up” between books, acquiring more and more power which they can deploy at a dramatically necessary moment (Jim Butcher’s Dresden files are particularly egregious for this). During One Salt Sea the transformation of Toby’s blood, along with the revelation that she’s Dochas Sidhe rather than Daoine Sidhe had no major power level breaking affects other than the logical increase of Toby’s blood magic. Toby’s blood magic indeed has been a fascinating mechanic in the series, providing both a unique tool for investigating crimes, and a sneaky way to let the readers know about the different Fae types Toby encounters. Having this blood magic be a little more accurate and more frequently used is certainly not a bad thing.

In Ashes of Honour however, McGuire suddenly introduces another power in Toby’s new Dochas Sidhe arsenal, unnaturally fast healing. Not only does this smack rather too hard of super hero mechanics, in which the author can have main characters more frequently beaten up for dramatic effect and yet have the various wounds mean comparatively little in terms of character obstacles, but it also provides Toby with a few too many get out of trouble free cards, such as the occasion in which Toby is able to escape captivity by shredding her bound hands on a rough rock wall to fray the ropes in the full knowledge she will heal.

I definitely hope McGuire doesn’t resort to this sort of thing too much in the future, since if we know our main character is in little to no danger, then we can hardly be expected to care about the danger she’s in, however many dramatic wounds or descriptions of her pushing through intense pain we read.

Whatever we think about the potential danger to Toby however, it is also true that McGuire’s ability to write compelling and likable characters means that the book never feels too safe. From Chelsea, to her forthright mother Brigit, to long standing series regulars who end up in trouble due to Chelsea’s misplaced teleporting, the victims in this book are as real and well-drawn as the heroes, and after all we know by now McGuire isn’t an author who pulls punches when it comes to tragedy.

Sadly, McGuire’s rather lacklustre and cliché villains continue, indeed it is almost surprising in an author who is otherwise so skilled at writing characters every villain must be a ranting cardboard cut-out who’s dialogue wouldn’t be out of place in Adam West’s batman.

This was particularly disappointing here given that the villain in question wasn’t actually embarking on scheme of simple world domination and might have even been able to justify their actions to some extent had their presentation been less blatant.

Villainy is also the one area where Ashes of Honour’s otherwise careful plot construction broke down, since it did feature one section in which Toby and crew all decide to blithely walk straight into the villain’s lair (they might as well all have been wearing badges saying “capture me”).

That being said for the most part the writing here is as careful and atmospheric as ever and though brief in places, never feels too rushed or lacking in punch, as is by now something we’ve come to expect from McGuire.

The book’s ending was on the one hand extremely apt, on the other rather disappointing, mostly due to the aforesaid tendency to forget certain details (and people), along the way, indeed this is probably the first time in the series where I have felt the book should’ve been slightly longer just to give all of the cast, who now are just as old and deer friends to the reader as Toby herself, time to breathe.

Then again, the characters who McGuire does focus on are moved forward with her usual compelling care, (including October herself), which is why even though Ashes of Honour doesn’t contain any major foreshadowing or hints of a larger plot, the book didn’t feel as if it were merely rocking in place.

It seems odd for a series who’s individual volumes are so distinct to speak of an “average October Daye” novel, and yet that is virtually what Ashes of Honour is. Characters and world move on, albeit perhaps not always in wise directions, and we are still looking forward to what is coming next, so while this is certainly not a high point for the series, neither is it a low one, though I hope that the next book will be able to shake the status quo a little more and perhaps feel less typically a mid-series volume.

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