The Brightest Fell by Seanan McGuire

The Brightest Fell book cover
Rating 8.5/10
Have you ever met my friend Toby's mom, she's the biggest bitch in the whole wide world

Despite a rousing success in Chimes at Midnight, the October Daye series has been a little disappointing lately. With an eighth book that was simply bad, a ninth book which was at best a pleasant interlude, and a tenth book which was barely passable, as well as no real hints of an overall series plot, as I said in my last review my lady and I were fearing that the series might be preparing for some aquatic acrobatics. This only goes to show that you shouldn’t count your sharks until they’re jumped, since Brightest Fell is not only a rousing return to form, but a major high point for the series and arguably even better than Artificial Night.

It’s finally happening, October Daye, private investigator, changeling, officially sanctioned hero and Knight of Shadowed Hills is marrying Tybalt King of Cats. This means of course a rousing bachelorette party at the local Fey friendly karaoke with all of Toby’s friends (male as well as female), in attendance. A riotous time is had by all;, however this particular party has an aftermath far worse than a hangover. Toby returns home just in time for a visit from her domineering mother, the firstborn Dochas Sidhe Amandine, who takes both Tybalt, and Toby’s sister’s lover Jasmin hostage, refusing to release them unless Toby find and return Amandine’s pureblood daughter August. Since August left a century before on an impossible quest, the only person likely to have information is Toby’s old Enemy Simon Torquill, yet with her own future happiness, and that of her sister May in the balance, Toby has no choice but to make an alliance with the man who once turned her into a fish for fourteen years, and journey with him into some of the darkest and most dangerous parts of fairy.

As noted in the Red Rose Chain review, Toby’s adventures have begun to feel somewhat predictable, however that isn’t to say the formula also can’t be fun. Thus as the book opened with a concerted effort to karaoke Toby’s dignity into submission, it was inevitable that things were going to go wrong. That being said, McGuire can still do humour, and the thought of the Luidaeg singing a wonderfully appropriate song (especially with the gravelly tones Mary Robinette Kowal gives her in the audio), is definitely an awesome one (I really wish Mary would record the Luidaeg’s song as an extra).

When however the ordure inevitably attacks the air con and Amundine appears, I admit my lady and I were not impressed. Increasingly, McGuire has been making the initially complex world of the Fey more and more black and white, or at the least pro and anti-Toby, since Toby is (as she is rather too quick to remind us herself), a hero. Previously, I’d got the impression that Toby mostly got on with her mother, and that the prejudice of other purebloods was something she could leave at home. Indeed, I gathered that a large part of the reason Toby left the Fey lands and returned to San Francisco, was because her mother had gone a little strange and got wrapped up in her own world.

However, either I am misremembering what Toby said of her childhood in Rosemary and Rue, or McGuire has done some retconning, since now it turns out Toby’s mother was a cold distant figure who constantly disapproved of her daughter’s changeling status, and that Toby lived a lonely, love starved childhood. Then again, since, despite her imminent wedding and large group of supportive friends Toby (at least according to Toby herself), also lives a lonely, love starved adulthood, this isn’t exactly too surprising.

Amundine therefore dons the usual extra twirly moustache of McGuire’s villains, which of course means she hates changelings, despite marrying a mortal and living with him for a good seven years, and despite saving Toby’s life in Late Eclipses, something which she now apparently did for mmmmmm, reasons.

All that being said, while Amundine is pretty one dimensional, the dimension she occupies is a very dark and nasty one, indeed while it was irritating that she is suddenly villainous, at least she’s the good kind of villainous, combining overbearing mother from hell with spoiled child in a genuinely flesh crawling way.

Thankfully, we got far more nuance with the rest of the cast. In Winterlong it was intimated that Simon Torquill might not be quite the villain he’s been painted as, and he may actually have had perfectly good reasons for turning October into a fish. Much of Brightest Fell involves an in depth examination of Simon which even forces the quick to judge Toby to acknowledge that there might be good in him, Indeed, oddly enough Simon becomes one of the most likable and fascinating characters we’ve seen in the series for a long time; and one thing which makes Brightest Fell so interesting, is genuinely not knowing which way Simon was going to jump, and whether we were heading for betrayal or redemption.

August too, when we eventually meet her is someone whose motivations are less than clear, neither entirely on Toby’s side nor entirely against her, indeed the fact that like Toby much of her character revolves around being a “hero” was a genuinely interesting commentary on the series and where things were going, albeit I do wish Toby had taken a little more notice of August’s mistakes.

This complexity with characters isn’t kept to newcomers either. As usual the Luidaeg turns out to be a sea witch shaped bundle of awesome with taped back hair, particularly since here we see some less pleasant sides to her nature and the functions she has to fulfil.

Whilst sadly Toby isn’t entirely back to being the likable lady we knew at the start of the series, she is at least a little less insufferably arrogant than she was in Once Broken Faith. Since something majorly important; Toby’s fiancé is at stake, it’s far easier to sympathise with her desperation, even if her occasional fits of “oh poor me,” and rants about responsibility could still be rather annoying. I was also highly pleased that one development of Toby’s powers put her at more of a disadvantage.

One of the best things about Brightest Fell however, is that it’s definitely a journey story, and what’s more one which ties up several really badly dangling loose ends. We visit many of otherworldly locations we’ve seen previously in the series such as Blind Michael’s realm and Annwn, which also means the return of some old friends and enemies. While I was disappointed that no mention was made of poor Katie, Quentin’s mortal girlfriend who’d suffered so much in Blind Michael’s realm, at least it’s nice to see that recovery is progressing for most of Blind Michael’s victims.

McGuire also pulled a Rowling, and took one element of the Fey world which had been in plain sight for several volumes, and made it a major part of the plot, a part which also incorporated the very fairy tale like principle of small acts of charity being rewarded, albeit this reward also lead an appealing new character into some pretty tragic circumstances.

As well as the journey, this was also the book where we got the most major indication of where the series is ultimately going, and actually felt as if it progressed the overall plot, especially concerning Toby and her bloodline.

The ending is both heart-breaking and mildly frustrating. On the one hand, we see some awesome character development and serious sacrifices. Indeed, the climax of the book is not some confrontation with yet another ranting villain, so much as it is a number of characters working out some amazingly difficult choices, which made it all the more gut wrenchingly effective. On the other, I was rather disappointed that both for Toby, and for one other character, there seemed to be too much return to status quo, and while the ending is setting up future series plot, the shakeup wasn’t half as huge as it threatened to be. If McGuire had had the courage to let the changes remain and not retreat to safer ground, we’d be seeing some major alterations in the next book, both for Toby and for others. Indeed, while in general Brightest Fell was a high point for the series, I am getting a little concerned McGuire is threatening to have Toby’s adventures simply bumble on ad nauseam, (a danger in long running series), simply coping with the crisis of the moment; rather than giving us the major, world shattering mystery which several books have hinted is on the way, then coming to a definitive conclusion.

In general however, Brightest Fell is a real breath of fresh air. We get to journey to some strange and magical places, deal with some dangling plot threads, spend time with some fantastically grey characters, and hopefully start moving in a more definite direction, with a main character who; though she still suffers irritatingly self-important interludes, is at least caught up in a genuine crisis caused by a wonderfully hissible villain. While I am still a little concerned about the series as a whole, Brightest Fell proves that Halloween must still be a ways off, since October isn’t over yet.

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