Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Rosemary and Rue by Seanan McGuire

Seanan McGuire is one of the notable female authors who I decided to make a point of reading this year. It's only appropriate that I end this year's reviewing with the last of her novels I've read this year. After being thrilled with Feed and finding Discount Armageddon a serviceable start to a series, I was looking forward to starting McGuire's October Daye series. Rosemary and Rue doesn't disappoint and given its status as McGuire's first novel, I am certain that the series will reach even greater heights. With lush world building, a engaging and unexpectedly human protagonist and plenty of action, the adventures of October Daye will appeal to fans of the works of Jim Butcher, Patricia Briggs, and Kevin Hearne. In spite of some flaws, this is a fantastic start from the pen of one of the genre's most well respected names.

October Daye is a changeling, whose mixed heritage grants her a small portion of her mother's magic and a place in the world of the fae. Her skills as a private investigator have resulted in a knighthood and a dangerous assignment. While searching for her liege lord's missing wife and daughter, Toby finds herself faced with an enemy whose magic is so powerful she is helpless against it and spends fourteen years trapped in a pond after being turned into a fish.  When the spell is broken, Toby's human family has moved on and she turns her back on the fae, whose influence has cost her everything. Depressed and eking out a threadbare existence, Toby seems to have given up on life. All that changes when her friend, Countess Evening Winterrose is murdered, and Toby finds herself compelled by Evening's dying curse to find the person or person's responsible. She must re-enter a world that has cost her everything to find Evening's killer or die from the power of the Countess' curse.

There's a lot to recommend in this debut. Toby Daye is a far cry from the paint by numbers urban fantasy protagonist despite how similar she might seem at first blush. She's a supernatural creature with the expected preternatural abilities, but her status as a changeling leaves that magic weak and ineffectual against the powerful forces arrayed against her. She is a knight of the court, but her ties to the pureblood society are tenuous due to her self-imposed exile. Toby is a woman with plenty of potential but very little of it is realized in expected ways. She manages to come up on top based on dogged determination, the ability to recognize when she's out of her depth, and more than a little luck.

The supporting cast is well developed and I look forward to seeing more of many of the characters that have only tangential importance to the plot. Tybalt, Manuel, Lily, Sylvester, Luna and many more are dying for more screen time. Toby has plenty of potential love interests and they are handled with a light touch, never taking center stage. This is a blessing considering the dire straits of the investigation and I applaud McGuire's choice to stay so far away from the ubiquitous paranormal romance angle given the state of the novel's plot.

The world building is top notch, going far deeper in to the breadth and depth of the fey than most fantasy novels. The wide variety of the fair folk is well represented and I look forward to discovering even more. The rules and social mores of fey society are well described and just inscrutable enough to make it clear that these are a bloody minded folk who are quick to take offense if the proper channels aren't followed. The currency of debt and favors that is so prevalent leaves plenty of dangling plot threads that I hope will be picked up as the series continues. With the internal politics and prejudices surrounding changelings, McGuire places this fairy tale squarely in the realm of human politics and gives the setting a ring of authenticity that helps ground it well.

Despite how likeable Toby is as a protagonist, I have some problems with her as a character. As a former private investigator who is good enough at her job to earn a knighthood, it is disconcerting how little effective detective work that she seems to bring to the story. She seems to bounce from failed lead to failed lead catching iron bullets with her body and narrowly escaping assassins all the while. She never seems to do anything but react, and I find it hard to believe that she could have earned a knighthood if she is always so ineffectual as an investigator. I'm hoping with her apparent return to official private investigator status, that we'll see more of her vaunted investigative skills in future novels. In this volume, the answer to the question about the identity and motives of Evening's killer is resolved not through Toby's cleverness but through information gained far too easily from an uber-powerful tertiary character. Hopefully, this will not be a trend that continues.

My other major issues center around paging and agency. The pacing was uneven throughout. The early chapters amounted to a tour of McGuire's exquisite world building and establishing the cast. Toby's investigations were essentially pointless, only providing more mystery and never much in the way of actionable information. As the second act begins, Toby seems to reel from one failed assassination attempt to the next. She rarely acts seeming only to react swept from one place to the other, bleeding and healing by turn. Based on her description as a effective investigator and knight of the court I would expect her to take a more active role in the events befalling her. Instead she seems to be a mere passenger in her story, rather than its author.  If Toby weren't such a likeable character, I'm not sure I would have liked the novel as much as I did given her lack of agency.

In spite of it's flaws, Rosemary and Rue is an excellent start to what promises to be an engaging urban fantasy series. The world building is exquisitely done with a richness of detail and plenty of room for further explanation. October Daye is an extremely engaging protagonist, despite her apparent lack of supernatural fire power or particular capacity as an investigator. The supporting cast all but begs to be delved into more deeply and the plot threads left dangling at the end of the first novel promise many more adventures in Toby's immediate future. I'll definitely by giving this series a few more books to even out its pacing and for Toby to find some agency. After all, I gave Jim Butcher four novels to get Harry Dresden ironed out, and we all know how well that turned out.

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