A Red Rose Chain by Seanan McGuire (October Daye #9)

I confess, given the disappointing showing of The Winter Long, my lady and I were not as eager to get back to October’s adventures as we have been in the past. Nevertheless, this has been a series which has delivered far more than it has disappointed, so we were willing to give McGuire another chance, especially as the plot to A Red Rose Chain harked back to Chimes at Midnight, which had been a definite high point in the series.

The book begins with Toby in the midst of a little heroing and mortal danger, rounding up faery dogs who, if left unchecked might risk alerting the mortals of San Francisco to the presence of the hidden world of the Fae. Despite her fiancé Tybalt’s usual brand of laconic feline sarcasm, Toby successfully returns to the court of Arden Windermere now Queen in the Mists. As is to be expected however, peace doesn’t last. The body of Madden, Arden’s Cu Sidhe Seneschal is delivered to the court, hit with elf shot, the magical poison that can cause pure blooded Fae to sleep for a century. Attached to Madden’s body is a note from the neighbouring kingdom of Silences, who’s King Rhys threatens war on the Mists if the false Queen whom October previously deposed isn’t reinstated.

October is sent as a diplomatic envoy to Silences to negotiate on Arden’s behalf, despite the fact that Silences is a kingdom where Changelings like October are held as a lesser race, and even more despite the fact that October, with her tendency to leap into every problem feet first and her rapid healing which makes her nearly indestructible is hardly what anyone would call diplomatic.

One thing which was immediately apparent to my lady and me, was that whatever had been basically wrong during the composition of the Winterlong, McGuire was well back on form here. Though never a poet, McGuire’s deft touch with dialogue and impression had certainly been missing, but here the banter was back on strength and all characters we know and like were very much their amusing selves, from October’s death omen sister the peppy May, to Quentin her squire, whose growth from stiffly formal teenager at the start of the series to a confident young man with some of Toby’s own brand of brio has been wonderful to see. In particular, this book let us explore the history of one notable secondary character, Walther, the Twylyth Teg alchemist who it turns out hales from Silences and has secrets of his own to explore (though not quite the secrets we might expect).

Though there weren’t quite as many returning secondary characters as previously what with the setting mostly being a different kingdom, getting April the data dryad’s take on the prospect of war was definitely an experience. I will admit my lady and I were both disappointed Toby’s continuing irrational hatred towards her virtual surrogate father Silvester Torquil saw no resolution, but then again Toby did have her hands full and hopefully this is a plot which will be resolved in later books.

As well as returning characters, another thing I greatly admired here was the way McGuire undercut Toby’s powers. One problem in giving protagonists amazing magic or super strength or even fast healing, is that increasingly conflicts are resolved simply with reference to those powers, and thus become more a matter of trading on superlatives than actually seeing characters earn their success. After all, even if we are told the hero’s super strength isn’t quite as super strong as the villain’s super strength, the fact that the hero manages to out wrestle the villain in the end just seems to show the hero wasn’t exactly in jeopardy.

Here however, McGuire completely undercuts any of Toby’s powers by putting her in a situation where they are of no use at all, a situation furthermore which she is uniquely unsuited to. Toby’s distaste for formal court politics, and even for formal evening dress has been clear throughout the series, yet here she is forced to grapple with that head on, from trading snubs at court dinners with mortal enemies, to her concern as to how to fight in a ball gown with a full length skirt and high heels.

Speaking of enemies, McGuire has never been great at villains, mostly due to her rather heavy handed touch when it comes to piling on the evil. Rhys however, King of Silences is definitely one of the best written villains of the series. A smooth, unashamed bigot with a line in nasty humiliations and a bald faced unpleasantness that takes maximum advantage of his position as King and his ability to say whatever he likes and yet stay within the bounds of civility. Indeed, though the previous Queen of the Mists was well in evidence, she was slightly out shown here.

Unfortunately, for all the expert snubs, and wonderfully underhand nastiness, the actual progression of events isn’t too surprising. We could have predicted simply from it being now part of Toby’s standard operating procedure that when it’s obvious that diplomacy is going to fail (as it is pretty much from the moment Rhys opens his mouth), Toby will leap straight to deposing him instead. However, the actual deposing here was a little too predictable.

We are told fairly early on that Silences happens to have what is virtually a big regnal self-destruct button, then, one character happens to mention that they’ve for some time been working on a discovery intended to push that button, which they just need a quick pop quiz from Toby to solve. Indeed, the metaphorical spanner in the works is so easy to come up with I wonder exactly why they bothered with negotiation or journeying to Silences at all.

That being said, for all the plot sometimes feels like its marking time waiting for the delivery of said spanner, some of the things that happen whilst waiting are truly nasty, albeit I do wish McGuire had introduced the possibility of the spanner slightly later on given that a couple of shock moments would be a little more shocking if we didn’t know that it was on the way.

Similarly, Silences is probably one of the most alien and unpleasant societies we’ve seen in Fae, with sycophantic nobles hanging on the King’s every mood, and some truly horrific tales of Changeling abuse. The problem however is that we only get a surface exploration of this, mostly because Toby is too busy visiting friends of friends to actually spend much time in Silences, despite her supposedly having a diplomatic mission there.

Though some of the new characters we meet are entertaining enough, I did rather want to see a little more of Silences, and in particular see the people King Rhys abused take slightly more part in his downfall.

On the other hand, the relationship between Toby and Tybalt has finally grown beyond the flirting and poking fun at Shakespearean dialogue to something that actually makes me believe these two people should be together, even if Toby’s remarks about how romantic it was she was with a man who would destroy anyone in the world who threatened her were a little off; talk about toxic masculinity, or rather toxic felinity.

Speaking of the feline, while we did see a little more of the Cu Sidhe here, unfortunately McGuire’s cat over dog prejudice continues, with the Cu Sidhe remaining loyal, pack orientated goofy doggies. Indeed, even though we are introduced to a second named Cu Sidhe character in course of the plot, her motivations and actions still remain both fairly simplistic and also slightly unexplored.

The final climax was however very satisfying when it came. McGuire manages to play with October’s fast healing powers in a truly horrific way, as well as remind us that she’s not actually indestructible. Furthermore, the previously noted metaphorical spanner is something we definitely know will have consequences further down the line (some of them mentioned in the next book’s back cover blurb), meaning that this might be a victory, but new trials are ahead.

While A Red Rose Chain is largely back on form, I unfortunately can’t shake the feeling that we’re also back on formula. There are the by now almost expected hints concerning Toby’s heritage, but in the end nothing is revealed and we simply have another case of Toby vs an evil local ruler with no consequence. Much as Toby, Tybalt and co are wonderfully entertaining to be around, I am getting the feeling that the series is somewhat rocking in place and that there is no generalised direction in sight, indeed, to say how dangerous and alien McGuire’s take on Faery felt in Rosemary and Rue, here, with the casual banter, indestructibility and self-assurance; things almost feel safe, despite the changeling abuse and maniacal monarchs.

This is not to say that A Red Rose Chain was a bad book in itself, but by the 9th instalment of a series, we would be expecting some degree of change to the world, or alteration to the status quo. Other than Toby essentially playing Reversi, and flipping over the odd bad ruler for a good one, it doesn’t seem that the general landscape, or even October’s own situation (feline fiancé aside), has changed too much. This indeed was another major disappointment in The Winter Long, that it promised a main series villain and some major shake ups, but in the end was something of a damp squib.

A Red Rose Chain has wit, humour, and a few shocks. However, despite one of the best villains in the series and a wonderful chance to see Toby out of her depth, in the end McGuire played things rather safe here, both in terms of how dark the setting could have been, and in terms of giving the series some much needed drive. Then again, even if we can’t drive, seeing Toby kick her way through court politics is likely worth the price of admission on its own.

7/10 When I'm not king dilly dilly, you shan't be queen

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