A changeling is as good as the rest
Despite my recent introduction to the joys of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I have never come across an urban fantasy book that really struck me as exceptional. Fun most certainly, but never anything that specifically stayed with me, or made me really care about its world or characters when I stopped reading. Of course there have been plenty of books about hidden fantastical worlds in the modern day I've loved, from Rowling's Harry Potter to Barker's Weaveworld, but the specific mix of mythological or horrific monsters, mystery and high octane action usually typified by the urban fantasy label has never cooked up something that really grabbed my attention. When therefore Mrs. Dark recommended Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, as books which were both most definitely urban fantasy and also highly worth reading, I was eager to give them a try.
Rosemary and Rue follows the adventures of October Daye, a changeling private investigator living in San Francisco, but also in a world full of the magic and politics of the hidden fae. One aspect of the book which is truly exceptional is the way McGuire represents the world of the fae and characters’ relations to it. Rather than having a world hidden in plain sight or a world which seemingly everyone from crime lords to police knows about but doesn't acknowledge, McGuire has the fairy world existing almost completely separate from the world we know, indeed in this respect her world building almost resembles Rowling’s. The fae realm is made up of many pure blood lordlings each possessing their own Knowe, or dwelling, which can be as small as a manner or as large as an entire hidden kingdom. This firstly creates a wonderfully medieval political structure, with nobles of all stripes going as far as different kings and queens, power plays, conflicting loyalties and alliances, but also a wonderfully alien world in which the action can take place, since the fae world is one of hidden shadows, odd rituals and darkly alien savagery. For example, to enter a Knowe a person often needs to enact a series of fairy tale like steps such as running twice around a bush or climbing the air below a bridge, and each morning fae risk their magic being seriously affected by the dawn, (including the disguises that help them remain unnoticed by humans).
Of course the world has its monsters and predators, but unlike a lot of urban fantasy writers McGuire simply has these as parts of an overall strange and perplexing society, not as the principal players in it. My only minor gripe in terms of world building are the night haunts, a little too convenient group of faeries whose principal duty is to remove fae corpses and replace them with replicas that look completely human, though hopefully McGuire will explore them later and turn them into something more than a rather too convenient plot device.
The thing however which impressed me most about the world McGuire creates, is that the main characters and conflicts of the book are intimately bound up with it. October Daye, (more frequently known as Toby), is a changeling, the child of a fae mother and mortal father. As such she is an outsider in fae society looked down on by many purebloods. McGuire’s representations of the ways October and her fellow changelings live have a rather gritty, real cast to them, from changelings being barred from some courts or falling foul of rules of magical etiquette in others, to a small squalid changeling community ruled over by a manipulative but at the same time protective despot. Most of the main mysteries in the book, rather than introducing ever more new magics or creatures simply revolve around the issues of changelings and their relations to pure blooded fae, delving into Toby’s own past along the way.
October Daye unfortunately does fill several of the standard archetypes of main characters in urban fantasies and thus is somewhat predictable, although unlike some writers I've read McGuire does make pains to show the reasons why October behaves as she does. For instance, where most writers simply write their principal characters with a chip on their shoulder to make them "edgy" since the book begins with October being painfully transformed into a fish for 14 years and thus losing touch entirely with her husband and daughter, her less than pleasant attitude towards the world and everyone in it and spurning her friends is rather explained. Also, McGuire is too clever an author to expect to run on static angst for the whole novel, and seeing Toby make realizations about herself and actually grow as a character is very satisfying, albeit the first person narrative style does mean some moments of change sometimes feel a little sign posted. Toby’s growth also makes her generally a little more likeable than some hard bitten characters, and the fact that Toby is indeed likeable contributes markedly to the impact of many of the book's events in particular some of the more dramatic action sequences. One of my major issues with the urban fantasy genre is the way that too often "smart and sassy" become rather despicable or even just plain nasty, especially when moments of character development are shoved aside in favour of explosive action. I can even think of some novels where I dislike the main characters so intensively the action totally fails to have any tension since I really don't care if the protagonist does or does not survive the car chase or avoid the hurtling horror. This is actually one thing I admire in Buffy, that its focus on identifiable, well rounded characters means that the action sequences have a little more point than just pyrotechnics for their own sake, and thankfully it's a route which for the most part McGuire follows as well.
My one problem with October as a character however, is that while McGuire does take time to explain her somewhat callous attitude, some of October's relationships are rather questionable. For example, while she bitterly grieves the loss of her daughter, her husband (even during the sequence before she is turned into a fish), she simply describes as "a guy with a great ass who can cook". Likewise several times throughout the rest of the novel she just plane fancies rugged looking men seemingly arbitrarily, or indeed with less savoury motivations (on one occasion she rather flippantly remarks that she wants one man's unpleasant pure blood wife to see her checking out her husband's shapely rear just out of spite). Luckily McGuire is too careful a character writer to have October's unstoppable libido run rampant through the book, and she does indeed show one rather serious consequence to the one actual encounter Toby has, still I did find a woman whose ability to love seemed limited only to her daughter (and later a surrogate daughter), and who seemed to view men more as a source of quick flings and thrills slightly difficult to get on with on occasions. I don't know whether this was due to McGuire trying to write October Daye as a hard case, or assuming that a strong female character must automatically avoid such fluffy things as romance, or possibly both, though it is also possible that later in the series this is an avenue McGuire might explore, and certainly there is no denying Toby is touchingly, almost fanatically loyal to her friends.
Another minor problem I had with the book is that far too many sequences blatantly smacked of setting up a series, indeed in many ways the structure of the book read rather like the pilot to a TV series as opposed to a first novel. There are conflicts, questions, and characters introduced everywhere which virtually have signs on them saying "coming soon"! It wouldn't have been so bad if these were tied into the main mystery of the book, however many of them just put in appearances for their own sake, such as the unpleasant Queen of the Mists who flatly stated she had an argument with October but conveniently forgot to mention what it is, or a pure blood princess turned a little wrong by a kidnapping October failed to stop. Indeed, though at the beginning of the book we see the case in which Toby is trapped and transformed, the fae involved whom I expected to be villains of the piece never appear again, though I have no doubt we'll be seeing more of them.
Another minor problem I had was the book's writing style. Written in the first person as are many urban fantasy novels, the style is abrupt and harsh often with very rapid changes of scene. This creates a fast paced thrill ride, particularly since McGuire is able to write with a degree of atmosphere albeit rather briefly, but also something that feels a little too cursory on occasion to create much connection with its secondary cast or much of a sense of actual flow. Monsters tend to jump out rather than lurk, and strange and mysterious places, strange and mysterious though they undoubtedly are do tend to get run into without much build up or anticipation (it’s odd how quickly October goes from contemplating visiting the Queen of the Mists to doing so), indeed even some of the more memorably freaky players in the book don’t get much by way of a fanfare.
This shedding of weight in the writing to increase speed also affects McGuire’s characterization, for instance one character whose death causes a major shift in the relation between Toby and her childhood friend has only time to say one sentence before he's killed. While this does create the sense of a world where people (especially changelings), are not safe and death can come at any time, at the same time it does make it harder to get a grip on some characters, though I will give McGuire credit in that though some of her characters are quick, onenote affairs who drop into and out of the narrative, others, despite the speed of the novel over all are decidedly complex, indeed one talent McGuire does have is quickly explaining and detailing character history and October's relations to people from her previous life so that you actually feel the impact of her new encounters with them, rather than feeling as if you're reading a series in the middle. Unfortunately a couple of these characters who are introduced do occasionally fall into being somewhat one note even if not actually stereotypical, for example the smooth, dislikeable Tybold King of Cats, or the delicate, gentle oriental Lilly, who of course drinks tea from beautiful china cups.
Not that McGuire’s writing is littered with archetypes, just that with the abruptness of her style her attempts to create characters which give a distinct impression can be a little too boldly coloured. Then again, it is possible this is entirely deliberate, after all the fae generally tend to be fairly flamboyant as a matter of course.
Of course, the book features a large amount of magic, including October’s own. While I do not like the idea that the magic and its limits feel a little too undefined, at the same time McGuire never falls into the trap that some urban fantasy writers do and, despite showing how powerless their main character is, suddenly has the main character's magic powers pushed beyond their limit to solve a desperate action confrontation with a huge blast of emotionally charged powerfulness, something my brother and I have dubbed "emo fire". Though I do not like the fact that we've already been told October has a degree of extra physical strength, most of the confrontations are solved by entirely mundane methods and October never manages to become too powerful to rob the world of its threat, (although some events in the novel indicate this may change later in the series, a road I do hope McGuire doesn't go down).
I did find a couple of the solutions to action encounters somewhat incongruous, such as when October, finding an assassin in the back of her car decides to crash it (a crash she conveniently comes out of), but provided I shut off my logic sense a little and just run with it I can appreciate the fun in such moments, albeit I'd rather not have to do that since if a writer plays the "hey it's a fun car chase" card too many times, it can make the action feel a little stale and lacking in tension or any possibility of actual danger, (a common mistake in many action films).
The ending of the book and the resolution of the mystery is a particularly nice one, especially since the character involved with it is someone who is visible and the conflict is one intimately connected with changelings and pure blood relations and the overall theme of the book. While I did find I could guess the culprit, at the same time despite October Daye being a private investigator and the book's main plot revolving around a murder mystery, I didn't feel the readers were supposed to be solving the mystery so much as sitting with Toby and seeing her pull herself out of the dark place where she started, indeed the emotional punch of the ending and the significance of the title Rosemary and Rue was quite unexpected. While the ending was a little too blatantly "and now October's back on patrol, look out for more exciting adventures", it didn't feel anymore hollow for that since undoubtedly Toby does undergo a journey throughout the book and one it's satisfying to walk with her.
So, the insert large amount of currency question. Has Seanan McGuire changed my view on the urban fantasy genre? The ultimate answer is unfortunately not. Generally speaking Rosemary and Rue succeeded in the ways it deviates from the standard urban fantasy tropes, maintaining a very other other world distant from our own, having very definite character growth rather than constant angst, and having action sequences that aren't resolved by the protagonist suddenly gaining more power due to their state of emotional upheaval.
Where McGuire failed, October's callousness, her quick flings, the at times slightly inserted action sequences, the sometimes rather one colour characters and blatant series setup were areas where it seemed closer to what I've seen in urban fantasy before.
I will however certainly be reading more of the series, and I definitely think McGuire has far more potential to create something truly original and impacting in the urban fantasy genre than many, indeed to an extent she already has.
Review by Dark
7.7/10 from 1 reviews
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