Late Eclipses by Seanan McGuire

Rating 8.0/10
Rosemary and Rue 2

Late Eclipses is the fourth book in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, featuring changeling and private eye October Daye, and the mysterious and unearthly world of the hidden Fae.

Toby’s life has settled down since she defeated the first born Blind Michael, she’s even getting used to having her own fetch and omen of death May as a roommate, (despite May’s excessive brand of colourful peppiness). However, when her friend, the undine Lily falls deathly ill, Toby finds her investigative skills in need once more. It quickly becomes apparent that Lily’s illness is no accident and Toby’s old enemy Oleander de Merelands, one of the two Fae who transformed Toby into a fish for fourteen years is now on a rampage, and for Oleander that of course means a liberal serving of poisoning with a little political game playing on the side, all of which not only threatens Toby’s closest friends but her very sanity.

One of the hallmarks of the urban fantasy genre is the episodic series structure. As often seen in less paranormal crime fiction, a series is not just one long story split into shorter chunks, or a set of linked stories each with a conclusion that nevertheless build up to a final showdown. The episodic structure has the protagonist faced with a “case” in each book which is closed by the end rather like the weekly adventures in a TV series. Of course in the better class of fiction (just as in the better TV series), the protagonists do change and the individual cases do have consequences, still the focus is generally the case of the moment, not how that case changes the world or characters and progresses matters towards an overall series ending.

I will confess that I am not a fan of the episodic structure myself, since simply changing the villain but keeping much else similar can make the series feel somewhat stale after a while, not to mention make it feel that the actual defeat of the villains lacks consequences for the protagonist, especially if (as happens unfortunately a little too often), that the hero and likely most of their friends and relations are pretty much inviolate, making the whole series feel a bit like watching someone play whackamole.

Much as I enjoyed An Artificial Night, following A Local Habitation it did feel as if McGuire was setting up a structure for the series. Toby would encounter a villain or conflict in each book which would be solved by the end. With Late Eclipses however, I couldn’t have been more wrong.

In a lot of ways Late Eclipses is the direct sequel to Rosemary and Rue. All of those plot hooks and at times rather too blatant setups which I noticed in the first book are fully utilised here. The Queen of the Mists’ dislike of Toby, Rayseline Torquill’s time in captivity, Dare’s brother Manuel, not to mention Oleander herself, indeed there is only one other major player (Duke Sylvester’s treacherous brother Simon), who hasn’t yet made an appearance. While part of me was thinking in a rather resentful tone “about time!” another part of me is realizing that in structuring her series the way she has, McGuire has built up some momentum in the previous books to make her progressive punches more telling. After all, it matters a great deal more if the person who is poisoned is someone we care about, or if someone we’ve known for several books is unpleasantly affected by grief or panic.

Even though as a whole in its atmosphere and setting Late Eclipses is not as dark as An Artificial Night, in terms of what happens to its characters the book is surprisingly harsh and takes a few unexpected twists, indeed my lady accused McGuire of betraying her by including a “Martin moment” as part of the plot. Personally, while I definitely don’t enjoy seeing bad things happen to favourite characters, at the same time I did appreciate the fact that McGuire has definitely created a world where people are not safe, and where the murky currents of Fae politics have a nasty undertow, indeed it is notable that even though Late Eclipses doesn’t actually show us any new locations in the Fae world, it did not feel like a static novel since the action was so immediate.

That being said, while the plot was quick, pacy and compelling to read, there were rather too many occasions in which I felt McGuire was taking short cuts, or side stepping explanations for the purposes of Diabolus ex Machina, that is contriving circumstances to put her characters in a deliberately bad position, something which is just as frustrating as the more commonly known divine version.

For example, on several occasions, despite repeated threats against her Toby returns to a place where she is actively being hunted, often on rather flimsy excuses.

Indeed, while in general October wasn’t quite as bad for missing obvious information in Late Eclipses as she was in previous books, I still am not exactly convinced on her competency as a private investigator.

On one occasion she actively forgets someone handing out cups and the ill effects she herself suffers just before a major poisoning, and though she does manage to get the poison samples analysed, she does not ask any of the questions that would be obvious in any investigation of a poisoning, e.g., where did the poisoned food come from, who had access to it, who was seen near it etc.

Questions which; rather like a similar situation in A Local Habitation would’ve actually outed Oleander’s disguise.

In fairness since part of the plot does also involve reason why Toby is perhaps not thinking clearly it is possible McGuire intended these sorts of oversights, though since they are issues I’ve noticed in October’s investigative techniques before I am not sure.

While we can doubt her skills at investigation, one thing I did appreciate in Late Eclipses is the humour and the continual complexity of the characters, indeed in several places (especially with October and May’s banter), I was reminded of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, mixing normal offhand observations about life and everyday tasks like shopping with discussions of a dark and hidden other world.

Though McGuire’s style remains rather brief, she does at least have enough gift for witty phrases in her descriptions and wry observations to make the reading experience entertaining, and as always with the October Daye series I appreciated how the world of Faery is kept unique and magical despite our now being quite familiar with it. Perhaps this is because even though we don’t explore any new locations in the book, we do get to see some places we’ve previously visited such as Shadowed Hills, the domain of Toby’s surrogate father Duke Sylvester Torquill in more complete detail than we’ve seen previously.

In terms of its characters, the complexity of relationships continues, especially since this is the first book that features a large amount of political interplay between the cast. It was also nice to see characters we know such as Quentin change and evolve, even Marcia, Lily’s assistant at the Tea Garden’s who previously had been notable mostly for her valley girl accent and casual attitude here evolved a good deal more personality.

One issue my lady and I both had with the book was McGuire employing the rather irksome cliché of the love triangle (more frequently seen in female writers), in which a female protagonist is adored by two men, an adoration which she takes as read and enjoys (or in some worse cases actively exploits), while she is with either man, and never considers the feelings of the other, or indeed the feelings of both related to each other. This sort of scene is made still worse at the point when two male characters decide to team up to save the protagonist despite their mutual antipathy.

That being said, Toby’s childhood friend Connor did have a rather better showing in Late Eclipses than he did in Artificial Night, giving us much more the sense of him as a well rounded and well meaning person than just the sulky selkie he’d been previously, particularly because we also got to explore more of his relationship with Rayseline Torquill, his damaged and unpleasant wife.

I was a little disappointed that we saw slightly less of the irascible Luidaeg, though since it was made clear she was taken up with other matters during this book, and since the next novel is entitled “One Salt Sea” I assume we’ll be seeing more of her later.

Tybold King of Cats was of course his usual suave, entertaining self, made all the more humorous with how well he contrasts with the blunt force October, and the ways May, supposed October’s clone diverges from her are continually delightful and fascinating.

Unfortunately for all of these captivating character developments, I am less sure of the villains.

The Queen of the Mists; California’s Fae ruler, who we’d seen previously simply came across as so hateful as to border on stupidity (not a good trait in a supposedly politically astute monarch). It also didn’t help that where in Rosemary and Rue Toby said she didn’t know why the Queen of the Mists had a grudge against her, here she simply explains the reason for the grudge and details the Queen’s unpleasantness. This was rather odd firstly because I wonder why October forgot about this grudge in Rosemary and Rue (especially given that it concerns Countess Evening Winter Rose who was murdered in that book), and because I do wonder how, with all the power plays between Fae nobles and the savagery of the fairy court exactly why the Queen didn’t do more to inconvenience Toby earlier, especially with the rather blatant lengths she goes to in Late Eclipses.

Oleander is deeply creepy, extremely disturbing and described with a short bit of nastiness, since brief though her style is McGuire has always been gifted in highlighting her characters with a few well chosen words. I particularly like the description of Oleander’s magic smelling of sulphuric acid and oleander flowers.

Unfortunately however, much as occurred with Blind Michael in the previous book, McGuire still fails to write good dialogue for her villains, which often contrasts rather oddly with how well they’re presented. McGuire even resorts to October exclaiming “you won’t get away with this!” only for Oleander to reply on cue “I already have!”.

Then again, for all McGuire does fail slightly with out and out bad, her presentation of more complex characters with different motivations is as accomplished as ever, indeed oddly enough McGuire seems one writer who writes subtlety far better than she writes simplicity, one reason why grey characters like Rayseline Torquill or Sylvester’s knight Sir Etienne are far more interesting than simply bad ones like Oleander.

This is also seen in one plot development which I admit I was initially a bit wary of, since I do not generally appreciate it when authors start talking of their characters as being “special” or being “heroes” and one could say that this is the book where Toby not only stops being just an ordinary changeling, but also gains more power into the bargain.

I do not generally appreciate it when authors feel the need to keep having their characters get even awesomer each book, since it smacks rather too much of the easy world of rpg development where you just have to rinse and repeat rather than learn in order to get stronger, a fun mechanic to keep you playing a game but a bit too easy in a fiction series.

That being said, one thing McGuire has been able to do consistently in the October Daye series is keep her world feeling alien, dark and threatening despite its familiarity, so I am willing to give her the benefit of the doubt with this development. Indeed, it is interesting that McGuire is able to give different Fae types distinct magical abilities, yet still keep her over all idea of magic feeling somewhat nebulous. I was concerned in the first book that this could mean McGuire could resort to simply having the main characters’ emotions plus magic resolve situations too easily, but that is one mistake McGuire has never made (all of her magic confrontations have been understandable, if frightening).

Similarly, while I did like the idea that October is not the most powerful or most talented changeling in existence and was mildly disappointed that McGuire here implies she has some sort of extraordinary destiny, at the same time I am confident enough in McGuire’s writing to see how she handles this particular trope later in the series, indeed I am particularly interested in what we might learn later about Toby’s past and the implication that there is more going on in Toby’s history than we previously have seen.

I must admit I was rather disappointed in how the final confrontation began, with October quite literally running in and knocking the poisoned cup from a potential victim’s hand, which of course lead Oleander to reveal herself, particularly since the poison conveniently smoked and burned when spilt, (clearly stealth is not Oleander’s strong point despite her talent for disguise). We also did not get any explanation beyond the simple fact of Oleander having a doctorate in horrid poisons (PhD); for how she actually was able to do the diverse dirty deeds that occur in the book. As my lady put it, the plot had some holes, and not just the ones caused by poison spillage.

Then again, how the confrontation resolves, the final ending, and October’s feelings about it were as beautifully delivered as ever.

I particularly liked the fact that for the first time in the series, McGuire even pulls quite a left hook in the conclusion, taking a slightly unexpected path, but one which leaves open far more possibilities for the future of the series, this was another respect in which Late Eclipses certainly did not feel like just another episode.

Despite several instances of plot contrivance, a love triangle that is a bit too pointed and not quite all the cogs clicking together, Late Eclipses is definitely the book that kicks things into a higher gear.

While I admit I miss the dark brooding atmosphere of Artificial Night, at the same time there is no denying that Late Eclipses is the book I’ve been waiting for ever since finishing Rosemary and Rue, and as such, it doesn’t disappoint.

Indeed I now find myself rather more eager to go onto the next book than at any previous point in the series, not just to spend more time with characters who are rapidly becoming old friends, or to explore a world which remains fascinating and full of wonder, but to actually find out the answers to the questions which this book poses and see how those answers change October and the world she belongs to.

This Late Eclipses book review was written by

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