Chimes at Midnight by Seanan McGuire
As anyone who has read these past reviews might gather, The October Daye series is one which my lady and I read together, swapping theories, opinions and sometimes engaging in stimulating disagreements along the way. Interestingly enough, Chimes at Midnight was the first book in the series she read unaware it was book seven, and the book that therefore interested her in following October’s adventures.
So, even before we began I was going in with rather high expectations, expectations which I do have to say for the most part weren’t disappointed.
One remark Mrs. Dark did make however, is that she genuinely doesn’t know how she managed to actually follow the plot of Chimes at Midnight the first time she read it, since; more than several volumes in the series, Chimes depends on preceding events. So, if you're reading this review, much less the book without having read books 1-6 then you should probably stop here for fear of series spoilers, yes, do as I say, not as I, (or at least my lady), did.
In a wonderful reference of Christina Rosetti’s very disturbing classic poem, the plot begins with goblin fruit. Pleasantly relaxing for pure blooded Fae, but fatally addictive to changelings. This was why October’s mentor Devin kept it off the streets. But now Devin is gone the number of changelings dying from the drug is on the rise. After an interview with the night haunts, the tiny memory stealers who arrive at every Fae death, October realizes that the goblin fruit problem is far more serious than she originally thought and that in tackling it she’ll need to go to the top. In that part of the hidden Fae world intersecting with San Francisco, that means The Queen of The Mists, a half siren faerie monarch of enormous power, who’s made her dislike of changelings in general, and October in particular clear on many past occasions.
Banished and under sentence of death, Toby seeks help from her ally, the formidably abrasive sea witch, who reveals that The Queen’s claim to the throne might not be as secure as she thinks. This leads Toby, along with friends such as her lover Tybalt king of cats and her squire Quentin into first hunting for a lost princess and then plotting rebellion.
Pacing in the October Daye series has been one of its strongest aspects, and that is absolutely true here. McGuire described Chimes at Midnight as kicking off the second arc of the series, which it does in explosive style. As with the shake up of events in Late Eclipses, we know these characters well, we know the kingdom of Fae well. McGuire doesn’t need to spend too much time on introductions so can just let the plot chug along.
Not that the book is a constant action fest, however more than any other volume in the series Chimes at Midnight plays the time limit plot extremely well, expanding the initial threat of goblin fruit by revealing the extent of the problem, then adding in Toby’s banishment, then adding in twist after twist to make the deadline closer and more brutal, indeed I wonder if this is where the book got its Shakespeare inspired title.
McGuire’s writing definitely is up to this task, brief, atmospheric and punchy, and while I am not usually one for writing which skimps on description, here given the steadily mounting tension and escalating threat levels, McGuire’s short, pointed style definitely fitted, as well as providing quite a deal of humour, (look out for the really evil pie).
I also liked the fact that at least part of the tension here involved finding out information (we even visit a Fae library), rather than constant physical threats. It is remarkable that in such a roller-coaster of a novel, random attacks by henchmen or disposable chase scenes were at a minimum, not that Chimes was lacking in action, but what action there was always served a purpose and pushed the plot forward, rather than simply being scenically large explosions existing for their own sake.
Character as ever is one of McGuire’s strongest suits. Toby is always fun to be around, as much for her flaws and recklessness as for her quips and heroics. With her nature revealed as Dochas Sidhe, her blood magic and rapid healing I will admit I have been concerned that McGuire has gone a little too far in overpowering her hero. Here however, she not only successfully made Toby vulnerable throughout most of the book (a vulnerability which she had to struggle intensely with), but also revealed some quite interesting facts about the nature of Fae into the bargain. I will admit I’m always a sucker for a story of the hero succeeding through determination against the odds rather than through sudden personal power, and by making Toby so effectively powerless throughout most of the story that’s exactly what McGuire gives us here.
Judging by most reviews I’ve seen, people seem to roundly applaud Toby’s relationship with Tybalt, indeed October, McGuire and most of the world appear to want to sweep October’s previous relationship with Conor the selkie under the table. Tybalt, with his sardonic feline humour is always entertaining, and the flirty banter, stolen kisses and exchanging of snarky quips is amusing to read. My problem however, is that rarely did I get a sense there was more going on here, especially on Toby’s part. Indeed, while Tybalt is apparently devoted to October, his devotion feels a little one sided, or at least October seems to only remember she loves, as opposed to likes Tybalt when it comes to life threatening situations.
Perhaps I am hopelessly old fashioned, or perhaps my relationship standards are a little high, (people do describe my wife and me as the Disney couple), but if I’m expected to believe in, and root for a fictional relationship I need a little more to hang my belief on than just smart, playful sparring, and at the moment the Octobault couple is rather like a meal composed entirely of popcorn, sweet, noisy and good fun, but not particularly satisfying or something I care too much about.
For the most part however, the character development is done extremely well, indeed I really liked Quentin’s journey here, since McGuire managed to reveal something about Quentin we should have guessed from the beginning, which was nevertheless a complete surprise, and of course more time with the Luidaeg is always welcome.
One major new character here was Arden Windermere, the rightful heir to the Kingdom of the Mists. Perhaps a conscious dig by McGuire at all those angsty long lost royal heirs we meet in fantasy novels, Arden was on the one hand quite annoying, on the other a surprisingly satisfying character. While my lady and I did spend most of the book wishing Arden would cease to whine and grow a spine, it was definitely worth it when she actually did. It’s interesting that Arden is the sort of character who’d be downright obnoxious as a series protagonist, but through Toby’s own irritated reactions (which rather mirrored ours), was much more entertaining at second hand.
One less than appealing new character; and indeed new Fae race was Arden’s guardian Madden, a Cu Sidhe, that is a faerie dog. It is quite obvious that McGuire is a cat person not a dog person, since the eager to please, happy go lucky Madden managed to embody every goofy dog stereotype out there. Of course Toby does remark that Cu Sidhe aren’t necessarily stupid. Unfortunately though, given Madden is the only Cu Sidhe we meet those remarks fell a little flat. It is also slightly troubling that in a series with several major three dimensional gay ladies, our first and only gay man in 7 books is playful, not too bright and flamboyantly dressed. I am fairly sure this was entirely accidental on McGuire’s part. Hopefully, McGuire will redress the balance by introducing more Cu Sidhe, and more gay male characters; such as Madden’s boyfriend, in later volumes.
One thing which Chimes did succeed at admirably, was giving us the best villain in the series since Blind Michael. The Queen was off stage for most of the action, and in her one confrontation with Toby actually managed to remain threatening without stumbling into melodrama. I especially liked the Queen’s stance on Oberon’s law; pure blood Fae shouldn’t kill each other, the particularly nasty way she got around this law when murder of purebloods was required was deeply unpleasant, as was the fact she made it quite clear that where the law was concerned changelings didn’t count.
That being said, I admit I am not exactly sure of Toby’s logic from “your government needs a better drugs policy” to “let's overthrow the government”. I was also slightly confused as to why, after spending so much time in One Salt Sea trying to avert a war with the Undersea here October was quite prepared to recruit an army from duchess Deanda and threaten marine invasion, a problem compounded by the Queen’s less than politic treatment of the neighbouring Undersea kingdom, indeed with the Queen’s political incompetence here I rather wondered why nobody had deposed her earlier, (Arden included).
Unfortunately, with the fast moving plot and rapid writing style a lot of information got thrown around and one or two things got lost in the shuffle, for example Marcia, the valley girl like changeling and one time assistant to Lilly the Undine seemed to have a startling change of personality here which was never explained, and while there was a lot about the previous King of the Mists and how the Queen deposed him, it was never clear either who the Queen was, or how she took over in the first place. It almost sounded as if she ended up in charge by default since nobody else wanted the job; after which nobody liked her once she was in power, possibly an ironic dig at politicians everywhere, though I suspect maybe just an oversight in making the Queen a little too manically incompetent.
The ending on the one hand was deeply satisfying, on the other a little frustrating. To say so much time was spent gathering allies and swearing oaths of allegiance, I was wondering if we’d actually see the Fae go to war, yet in the end the Queen seemed to have mislaid her military so it just came down to the Queen alone vs Toby and co. Still more problematically, the Queen was able to incapacitate literally everyone using her siren singing, including Duke Silvester (a retired hero himself), and May, Toby’s own fetch with most of her memories. October was apparently the only person to think of ear plugs.
Indeed, given that the few Queen’s guards we do see are very quick to abandon her, (so quick Toby seemed rather dense for trusting them), I found myself wondering why Toby bothered with all the princess finding and such when likely the strategic application of some duct tape would have rendered the Queen powerless and nobody would have objected too much.
Speaking of powers, on the one hand it was a trifle disappointing that the re-powered October dealt with the queen so easily, on the other since questions of October’s bloodline and her mother's actions were very prominent here, I’m willing to suspend judgement until we have a little more information, since I suspect McGuire will be dealing directly with the matter of October’s own abilities in the next volume.
All that being said, the book ending not only dealt with one of the major problems in the series, but also raised a number of questions which will doubtless be major plot elements in the future, though I do wish we’d had a few more answers to the actual problem of goblin fruit.
The edition of Chimes at Midnight we read also came with a short story entitled “Never Shines The Son”; a retrospective told from the Luidaeg’s point of view about a meeting with seven year old October and her mother. Unfortunately, while it's always great to spend more time with the sea witch and seeing events from her perspective would be fascinating, McGuire’s actual narrative style didn’t change too much from when she was writing October. Also, the chief purpose of this interlude was basically to hint at things to come and reveal the name of an overarching series villain, as well as flesh out an accidental flashback October received from the Luidaeg’s blood in course of the story, making it feel a bit insubstantial.
The teasing here is so blatant I can almost hear McGuire laughing at me, that being said, the teasing annoyingly works, since damnit I really want to go on to the next volume now, though I do wish some of this information had been revealed in course of the story itself (especially since there are apparently editions of Chimes at Midnight that come without it).
After a slight slump in One Salt Sea and Ashes of Honour seeming to rock in place, Chimes at Midnight returns to the intensive pace, breathless action and momentum the series had in some of its earlier volumes. We know these characters, we know this world, and McGuire now takes her time to shake things up. Despite some uneven villainy, lost details and a mildly unsatisfying romance I can highly recommend Chimes at Midnight at any time.
This Chimes at Midnight book review was written by Dark
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