One Salt Sea by Seanan McGuire

Rating 5.9/10
The hunt of dense October

Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series has been a favourite of my lady and me for a good while now, so it seemed only right to celebrate our new house warming with a book about kidnap, mayhem, potential war and of course lots of nice cold ocean water. The fifth October Daye novel, One Salt Sea returns to the Kingdom of the Mists and the strange hidden world of the Fae, existing in and around Modern San Francisco. Things seem to be going surprisingly well for Toby, changeling private investigator and knight of Shadowed Hills. She’s settling into her new role as Countess of Golden Green (despite the depredations of the local pixies), and has acquired not only a squire; none other than her protégée Quentin, but also a boyfriend, her childhood sweetheart the good natured Selkie Connor O’Dell.

All of this changes when she discovers the Luidaeg sitting in her apartment. Dean and Peter Lorden, the sons of the Duke of Saltmist, the neighbouring undersea duchy have been kidnapped, and Duchess Dianda Lorden is threatening war with the land unless they are returned. The sea witch enlists October’s help stopping the war a task October is only too glad to undertake, especially when it quickly becomes clear that Rayseline Torquil, Connor’s psychotic ex-wife is involved.

One thing I still admire about this series, is the way that characters have begun to feel like old friends, and yet the world of Fae remains so alien. This is typified in what was to me the highlight of the book, October’s trip to the duchy of Saltmist (complete with mermaid tail). Given how even familiar parts of Fae still feel that slight bit out of true, I could well believe that Saltmist was simply another place in a vast world we’d not visited yet, rather than an author stretching her setting to provide something new to explore in a long running series. Saltmist itself, a truly three-dimensional coral palace populated with undersea Fae as unique as the half-whale Citasi or the half-octopus Chafari was simply a delight to visit, particularly since the customs, expectations and traditions of Saltmist were just that bit different to those we’ve now got used to among the land Fae.

Unfortunately, wonderful though this part of the setting was, other aspects of the book’s construction seemed to fall slightly short. Despite a three-day time limit, the plot felt oddly aimless in parts, particularly since October discovers Rayseline is behind the kidnappings quite early on, and yet still wanders around attempting to find extra bits of evidence or rushing back and forth to speak to characters we’d already visited. It also didn’t help that as I have previously noted, October continues to be a less than competent detective, indeed the investigation seemed to move forward more often by October stumbling across clues than uncovering them through her own efforts or skills. This reliance on good luck (or authorial assistance), even went as far as Toby quite literally finding Rayseline’s “how to kidnap” to-do list which the supposedly psychotic girl had left in one of the kidnapped boy’s bedrooms along with a couple of other dastardly implements, villainy mistakes that rather beggared my belief.

On the other hand, I did appreciate the way that in this book October felt far more part of a group of characters all cooperating together and using their own unique talents than trying to obstinately work alone. This went from Tybold the King of Cat's ability to walk through shadows, to her friend Danny the taxi driving troll’s facility for interrogating rocks. Feeling more like an ensemble than a solo affair also meant that McGuire’s gift for writing likable characters was put into full play here and I didn’t feel any of the cast got short changed. I particularly appreciated that the ever grumpy Luidaeg not only played a large part in the plot, but also revealed some details of her own history and her relation to other groups in faery which gave her a surprising depth while not compromising either her wit or her danger, especially given the more minimal part she played in the previous book.

The writing style is McGuire’s usual abrupt ironic affair, with events told from October’s rather jaded perspective. Quick though the prose tends to be, McGuire does retain the ability to add in a few odd turns of atmosphere or humour to keep the narrative from feeling too plain. I particularly liked her description of the Luidaeg taking her coffee with sour cream and salt, or Golden Green’s house keeper Marcia advising some young helpers baking bread to “not get any bogeys in the dough”, a phrase whose significance in the UK I am fairly sure McGuire was aware of and one which sent Mrs. Dark into a paroxysm of eeeew!

For all this though, there were a few major areas in which One Salt Sea definitely did not come up to the standard of the rest of the series. The first of these was Toby’s relationship to Connor and despite a somewhat rocky portrayal in Artificial Night, Connor has now become that rare thing in literature, just a genuinely nice guy. October’s interest in him however seems pretty unequal, since however many well documented encounters they have, he doesn’t seem to make an impression on her outside the bedroom, especially when the opportunity comes along for a heart stopping kiss with the feline lerv machine Tybold king of cats. Indeed, I confess I liked Tybold far more as the cool, handsome, unattainable and untrustworthy figure he was earlier in the series than as Toby’s mysterious knight in black leather. Perhaps of course Toby’s inability to care much about the men she’s with is due to her first experiences with Devan as a teenager, however it is very difficult to like a main character who is treating such a plainly good man as Connor in quite as offhand a way.

Another character whose portrayal severely falls down is Rayseline Torquil. Despite her gift for quick atmospheric notes, McGuire has always had trouble writing villains who are more than collections of clichés, one reason why Blind Michael of Artificial Night was probably her most effective villain so far being as he was off stage for most of the novel. In Rayseline McGuire attempts to create a more complex character, a child sent insane by the kidnapping October failed to stop. The problem however, is that however much McGuire tries to drum up sympathy for Rayseline, by views of a room which hadn’t been changed since she was a little girl, or showing her parent’s regret over Rayseline’s lost childhood, it is just down right difficult to have any sympathy for anyone who is quite as no holds barred cackle cackle rant rant eeeeevil! As Rayseline even on the basic level as a threatening antagonist Rayseline doesn’t measure up because it’s simply difficult to take anyone who uses phrases like “I would’ve gotten away with it too” particularly seriously, not to mention that as previously noted both Rayseline and her villainous allies are less than competent here; one villain is even caught out due to an irresistible urge to monologue at the wrong time.

It also did not help that for the first time, McGuire gave her villains honest to evilness henchmen. Where all of her other Fae types have been portrayed with creative delicacy, we are literally told goblins are just the brutal rentathugs they appear. This is doubly annoying given that various moments of tension in the book occur because goblins harass October and co, and of course in the best tradition of nameless enemy guards everywhere, one main character is worth at least ten of them.

That being said, not all the plot turns here were missteps. We get a call back to Toby’s criminal past complete with creepy underworld contact, and some very unique revelations about the Night Haunts which shed a rather different light on previous events in the series, something which is always welcome in a long set of books, especially when it concerns the history of characters we have come to care about.

Sadly, One Salt Sea’s climax is a major disappointment and that is chiefly due to October. October’s human daughter Gillian has been hanging in the wings for most of the series, but other than a brief encounter with a doppelganger in the first book we have seen nothing of her. Indeed, Toby has told us that her human husband and daughter didn’t want anything to do with her after she returned from her enchantment.

The ending of this book however puts Gillian in Danger, and instantly all of October’s other concerns, for her friends, the war or the kidnapped princes are swept aside. I found it very difficult to care about Gillian, because we simply do not know who she is or really have a reason to care about her other than her being October’s daughter. McGuire almost felt emotionally manipulative here, particularly with the way Gillian reacted far more like a standard helpless little girl under ten than a young woman of eighteen for the brief time we did actually see her.

This wouldn’t have been quite as huge an issue had several regular characters (not to mention the missing princes), not also been in severe danger at the time, a danger which both McGuire, and October seemed rather unconcerned with, indeed October came across as more than a little callous here. Perhaps it was that some of the tragic effect of the book’s ending was partly foreseeable based on expected tropes (I did suspect it and my lady was quite irritated to discover I was correct), and so McGuire wanted to throw in a surprise, however the overall effect was to cheapen the tragedy, add a damsel and make the main character feel less than likeable.

It also did not help that the resolution of the plot with Gillian employed what to me smacked far too much of a deus ex machina style magic device, although for the record my lady disagrees with me and did think McGuire gave enough justification for this, though my lady is also even angrier with October’s general attitude and behaviour in One Salt Sea than I am.

Of course, with McGuire’s gift for writing characters who are not villains, I wouldn’t be surprised if Gillian develops more of a personality in future books, however her appearance here and how it affected October and the overall plot seemed to be a severe misstep.

All in all, this fifth entry in the series has been the first which struck something of a sour note. Despite a beautiful and mysterious world under the sea to explore and a few revelations about characters we have come to care for, the heavy-handed plotting, unsubtle villains and above all October’s cavalier attitude didn’t make for quite as astounding an experience as usual with McGuire. Not that it was a total write off, however I will agree with Mrs. Dark’s remark that if this had been the first October Daye book she’d read she probably wouldn’t have continued with the series.

Hopefully the next book; Ashes of Honour, will go some way to recovering ground lost to One Salt Sea, and undoubtedly for fans of October’s adventures another visit to the Kingdom of Faery is always welcome, even if October was having something of an off day.

This One Salt Sea book review was written by

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