Seanan McGuire didn’t take long to become one of my favorite authors. See why in my look at the first installment in Toby Daye series!
An interesting note about Seanan McGuire’s work is that I was effectively warned away from her. I was first introduced to her through her work as Mira Grant, a pseudonym that she picked up specifically because she felt that fans of her work under one name would not be fans of her work under the other. While I can kind of appreciate the sentiment, I don’t really get it. I love her Sci-Fi horror work, and I love her fantasy work, and I wouldn’t be surprised if when i read some of her other work, I love that too.
When I found out that one of my new favorite authors, Mira Grant, had a different name under which she wrote novels in a genre I’ve wanted to write for years- urban fantasy- I was both excited and trepidatious about it. After all, Seanan McGuire makes it very clear that her and Mira have very different and distinct writing styles and target audiences, and I wouldn’t want to get all hyped up for something that only appeals to teenage girls…would I?
Well, honestly, I would, as long as it wasn’t Twilight style faux romance. And Rosemary and Rue, the first book in the October Daye series, is anything but that. Instead, it’s one of the most engaging true mysteries (check my Timecasters review for the distinction) I’ve read since I was a kid picking up Hardy Boys books at tag sales.
Rosemary and Rue is about a changeling- a half-Faery, half-human- woman trying to make it in a world that seems stacked up against that particular breed. Not only that, but Toby’s (short for October’s) particular talents seem to make her the target of a lot of attention- the type of attention she’s been desperately trying to avoid. Like an old friend putting a curse on you to find and punish the person who killed her, or else, because Toby is the only detective skilled enough to do the job.
Don’t let this talk of her skills deceive you, though, because Toby’s not Batman or Sherlock Holmes. She is very much the underdog in this story every step of the way- arguably so much of the underdog that I have a feeling a sizable percentage of men would have trouble empathizing or even sympathizing with some of her difficulties. Toby is very much your damsel in distress-turned-heroine by sheer virtue of refusing to be put down and stay down, which isn’t a bad place for an author who knows that position to start off from. To be perfectly clear, what I’m saying is that while the amount of times Toby gets beaten up and taken advantage of does make me uncomfortable, the manner in which Toby recovers and my familiarity with author Seanan McGuire through her blog keeps it from being an overly bothersome artistic choice- especially in a realm that, try as I might, I have little say or expert in. What Rosemary and Rue does do is to show Toby refusing to let any of the racism or mistreatment get her to devalue herself as a person, and overcome the limitations it sets upon her, which are some strong traits in their own right.
Difficult to discuss themes that I’m sure at least one person is going to hate for me aside, there’s plenty of action, fantasy and mystery here, not to mention some hard-hitting points that so much fantasy these days is willing to avoid for the sake of making their story safer for younger audiences. Seanan McGuire has none of that bullshit, and nobody in this story has a happy day. Some get off better than others- there just aren’t enough coals to drag everybody through- but “Happily Ever After” isn’t on anybody’s mind. Nor was it in the beginning, either- this first entry to the series feels like we’re just picking up in a story that’s been going on for some time. I don’t mean that in the negative “where did this come from?” sense, but rather the sense that you’re entering a living, breathing world with real characters who have storied histories. By the end of the book I, for one, was pretty interested in learning what it was to earn Toby her knighthood- but at no point was I required to speculate or know in order for the plot to move forward. If more second and third installments of stories used this approach, fiction wouldn’t be in the state it is today.
The fantasy of the book focuses mainly on the various Faerie species, using what I believe are Gaelic names. Similarly, the magic used hearkens back to the pre-Dungeons & Dragons tradition: there are no named spells here, the Fae simply use their magic. I have a fondness for Fantasy that knows its roots beyond Tolkien, even if I have to struggle at times to pronounce the names of the creatures in the book. The important thing to know is that purebloods = feudal royalty, changelings = might as well be peasants as far as half the purebloods are concerned, and humans live blissfully ignorant in our own world.
Having delved into all of the technical aspects of Rosemary and Rue, I find myself in the situation of having still not conveyed what makes this book so good. Well, if you haven’t guessed by now, it’s the characters. Toby Daye is absolutely excellent to follow around; already a hero in her own right, she’s nevertheless called once again on her Hero’s Journey after attempting to leave that life behind. She’s forced to rely on friends, enemies, and terrifying myths alike, to learn who she can truly trust. Unlike most Hero’s Journey survivors, you don’t get the impression that she’s going to come out of the story as Kate Beckinsale and kill everybody- but like many other half-human characters, I wouldn’t want to get on her bad side and find out.
If mysteries, European fantasy and awesome underdog heroines are your cup of tea, pick up Rosemary and Rue and you won’t be disappointed. Sure, it’s not as gory or as zombie or as pro-Nerd as her work under the Mira Grant pseudonym, but that doesn’t diminish Seanan McGuire’s skill as an author or her appeal as a writer of interesting stories. So far it seems like the stylistic differences between the two personas is skin-deep- like the difference between Sci-Fi and Fantasy- more than anything else, but then again, I’m only scratching the surface. I guess now’s the time to see how deep the rabbit hole goes.