Once Broken Faith by Seanon McGuire

Once Broken Faith book cover
Rating 5.0/10
October is cattier than Tybalt

October Daye has generally been great fun, both the series and the Fae detective for whom it’s named. While some more recent books haven’t quite been up to scratch, McGuire certainly had built up enough good will for my lady and me to hope matters were going to improve, especially given that Once Broken Faith would be carrying on directly with the consequences of A Red Rose Chain, consequences which could be truly dire for the world of the Fae and even perhaps put some prior events into another light. Before discussing these events in more detail, please beware of spoilage for the series up to the previous book.

As events begin, Toby is beset by a ravening Fae hoard who turn her life upside down; she hosts a slumber party for Quentin, Raj, Chelsy and pretty much every other teenager we’ve met throughout the series. Massive consumption of pizza, marshmallows and Disney films comes to a halt for Toby however, when Arden Windemere; the Queen in the Mists walks into her living room. Elf shot; the powerful magical poison that can put pure blooded Fae to sleep for a hundred years and kill changelings has long been a mainstay of Fae conflict. With Toby’s help however, Walther the alchemist has now discovered a cure, the same cure used to restore the rightful royal family of the Kingdom of Silences. High King Aethlin, ruler of all North America (and father to Toby’s squire Quentin), has called a royal conclave to decide whether Walther’s cure will be freely distributed or banned, a conclave at which Toby will be required to give evidence. This is just the sort of situation Toby hates, and with her Cait Sidhe lover Tybalt having to consciously avoid her and keep a distance as required by his position as local King of Cats, Toby knows she’s not in for an easy time. Sure enough the first corpse appears barely hours into the conclave, and with Queen Arden’s Knou locked from the outside, Toby has to track down a killer, navigate Fae politics and keep her loved ones safe, all whilst trying to convince the aristocracy that a cure for a weapon fatal to Changelings is a good idea.

One of the strengths of the October Daye series has always been its characters, and this definitely continues, indeed whilst Toby’s attempt to give Quentin and co a so called “normal teen experience” did feel a trifle incongruous to those of us whose teen experience was definitely abnormal, at the same time it’s great to catch up and see how Toby’s various charges are doing, plus see a little more of characters like Jasmin, Toby’s Fetch sister May’s raven maid girlfriend and get more of an idea of Toby’s domestic life. I did find it a trifle odd that Toby casually tosses off that one apparently heterosexual character (or at least a character who’d previously had a girlfriend), has now begun dating another man, but maybe the Fae are just more casual about that type of thing, and it’s certainly true that with several gay ladies in the book it is nice to see a gay man who isn’t a walking cliché; even if this did come slightly out of the blue.

As the conclave begins, character also remains the strong point here, as we meet Quentin’s parents and get more of an idea as to why the young pureblood might have been Toby’s squire in the first place. I also applaud the way McGuire expands her setting here by introducing a range of Fae kingdoms and different Fae monarchs, going from the aggressively conservative traditionalists of the Kingdom of High Mountain, to the two Golden Hind rulers of the kingdom of Golden Shore, whose desire for changeling equality is so overblown it’s actively obstructive. Best of all from a character perspective, this book features a large serving of everyone’s favourite ever grumpy centuries old sea witch The Luidaeg. Indeed I’m amazed at how McGuire is able to continually find new depths of comedy and humanity in a character who in most series would simply be the go to dangerous ally, here particularly, seeing The Luidaeg’s gentleness with a terrified child, even as she lays down the law to a bunch of haughty nobles is absolutely awesome.

McGuire did make a minor misstep with Karren. Rescued from Blind Michael in Artificial Night, Karren’s powers as an an oneiromancer who can enter and control dreams have been begging to be explored in the series. Unfortunately, as with Gillian in One Salt Sea, McGuire (usually the first to create interesting teenaged characters), seemed to forget that Karren was not only fifteen, but also had already survived some pretty horrific events. Thus, while seeing the Luidaeg particularly taking care of Karren is appealing, the fact that Karren comes across more like a scared ten year old than a fifteen year old really didn’t contribute to her character, indeed to say this is the first we’ve really seen her in the series, other than her being pretty easy to intimidate and generally scared, I really don’t have much idea of who Karren is.

Unfortunately, for all the exceptional world building and the awesome cast of supporting characters, the one really problematic character here is Toby herself. Toby has always been less than subtle, either about her feelings or about her investigation. Here however, much as in Winterlong, that lack of subtlety translated directly into a self-obsession so profound that my lady and I were actually wondering if Toby was under an enchantment and were quite disappointed to find she wasn’t.

In an early section of the book for example, Toby refuses to walk along a narrow walkway because if she falls from it her fast healing will cause her to not sustain damage. Never mind that this is a walkway others tread everyday who do not have the luxury of healing powers, and doubly never mind the fact that Arden is asking for Toby’s help in distributing the cure to others (so much for being a hero).

Again characters having insecurities and fears, and especially characters overcoming those insecurities and fears to be truly heroic is all part of building a complex character, and were Toby showing fear at one of the things we know she has a reason to be concerned about; water from her time transmogrified into a fish, or candlelight from her experiences with Blind Michael I wouldn’t have minded, however here she just came across as a sulky teenager herself.

Similarly, her reaction to the news that Tybalt will have to remain at a distance from her during the conclave due to his political position was nothing short of selfish, especially since she admitted she understood why, she just gave Tybalt a hard time about it because she could.

Tybalt isn’t the only King Toby kicks around either, indeed to say that in Rosemary and Rue the previous Queen of the Mists could humiliate Toby by changing her clothes and October just had to take it, Toby’s attitude to pretty much anyone in authority, even decent natured authority figures like Queen Arden and the High King has drifted well passed sassy into simple arrogance.

This profound selfishness also affected the plot. Toby’s estrangement from Silvester Torquill has not been a development my lady and I relished. Essentially, Toby is angry at Silvester for failing to mention that his evil brother Simon who transformed Toby into a fish was married to Toby’s mother before she married Toby’s father. So, Simon is emphatically not Toby’s father, he is at most, her stepfather. Toby’s lack of knowing this fact has not as far as I can tell made much difference to anything, and of course, Silvester made a promise to Toby’s mother not to reveal the fact, a promise in a faerie world where breaking promises can result in dire consequences.

Yet, Toby’s reaction to not being instantly told this minor fact of family history has been to completely cut off Silvester Torquill; a man who virtually is her father. Here, the plot is downright painful, with Toby snubbing Silvester at every turn, and Silvester doing everything he can to be nice, including taking Toby’s snubs with gentleness and good humour.

Toby’s selfishness didn’t stop there. Her concern for those around her was more often than not phrased in terms of herself, “I am a hero so people rely on me! It would be awful for me! If anything happened. Everyone is looking to me! To sort this out” and so on.

Even her love for Tybalt here was portrayed so selfishly he felt more of a possession than a lover, particularly when Toby was toying with the idea of destroying her own humanity in order to be with him (a suggestion she makes on a number of occasions).

Though the plot did involve an intriguing mystery and at least an attempt at a more standard investigation, with interviewing suspects, considering motives, looking for clues and something vaguely resembling detective work, with Toby being such uncongenial company for most of the story matters felt far slower than they should’ve done. It also didn’t help that I am increasingly getting a feeling of who is and is not safe in the series, meaning that when one of the core cast members gets attacked, despite Toby’s round of self-flagellation regarding how terrible such an attack was for her, I never actually felt much of a sense of jeopardy here. That being said, it was refreshing to see a mention of Eira Rosynhwyr, the villain who was despatched all too easily in The Winterlong, and though we didn’t really get much more information about her other than her being EVIL WITH A CAPITAL BAD, it is nice that all the omens building up to Eira’s appearance in the series weren’t entirely wasted. I also liked some of the contradictory viewpoints and arguments surrounding the use of the cure, for example the rulers of Golden shore objecting because, were Elf shot more easily curable, it would become a more readily used weapon for incapacitation and sabotage, and thus of more danger to Changelings not less.

McGuire’s style here was as usual its quick and pacey self, though I did notice one minor typo when a King was referred to as a Queen, and her ability to show a lot of Fae rulers with gravitas and pois was definitely welcome, even if Toby’s constant emotional obsession wasn’t.

While the final solution did involve at least some clues from Toby’s investigation, at the same time McGuire slightly wrote herself into a corner. Toby at one stage makes a shocked realisation that she has not noticed the servants of the nobility and wonders if she’s becoming as arrogant as a pureblood, (which indeed she is). Yet, we have had one servant described in the course of the entire book, and by virtue of being the one servant Toby mentions even though Toby herself apparently didn’t notice the servants, its inevitable that said servant will be involved.

McGuire also repeats a previous issue in the series and has Toby arrive at the villain’s door, just in time to hear a convenient monologue on the villain’s part which not only explains their own dastardly deeds, but also makes it clear they’ve been using a catspaw all the time. I can’t help thinking that the story in which Toby, with her usual blunt force approach to accusation accidently attacks, or accuses or even kills the catspaw then finds her mistake would be a far more interesting one; as well as showing that Toby cannot always rely upon narrative convenience. Similarly, despite the conclave having a range of opinions about Elf shot which likely would require a set of compromises and guidelines (as political decisions usually do in reality), Toby simply cuts through the hole thing with a big hero speech and a unilateral decision.

Noting that McGuire has also written X-Men comics, I find myself wondering if the problems with Once Broken Faith are to do with Toby becoming a superhero, since many of my issues with the book, the main character’s selfishness and self-obsession, a reliance upon intrinsic powers to solve all problems, the rest of the cast pandering to and praising them because they are “a hero”, cardboard villains, and the author’s convenient habit of letting narrative get them out of their own messes are the very reasons why I strongly dislike superhero fiction.

I remember the world of Rosemary and Rue, where Faerie was a dangerous place where pureblood nobles could turn a Changeling into a fish and laugh whilst they choked. I also remember October Daye, that slightly screwed up but likable, even lovable woman who had little going for her but a big heart, a desire to do the right thing, a training in dirty fighting and a bit of magic. I miss that world, and that character, and while a host of positive reviews plainly show that this invincibly arrogant powerhouse is a character who appeals to some people, my lady and I would rather like to see the real Toby back. Were it not for an unforgettable surrounding cast and a world which is still worth exploring (even if that world has lost all possible danger for its main character), I’d probably be thinking this was the point the series jumped the shark, though as we all know the Luidaeg eats sharks for breakfast.

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