Seanan McGuire, Rosemary and Rue (DAW, 2009)
It’s such a tried-and-true formula in urban fantasy: mythical creature and/or fantastical society live one step to the left of humankind’s mundane existence. There are a million hidden interstices that most of us never notice, and we’d be grateful for this if we knew, for the fantasies lurking beyond our sight are more often fanged and dangerous than sweet and friendly.
October Daye, a cynical and perpetually caffeinated lapsed PI, is a half-faerie attempting to keep her head down and lead a mundane life in San Francisco. The novel proper begins after some significant torture and personal losses, so she’s pretty dedicated to this drama-free lifestyle. Unfortunately, as a knight still in the service of Sylvester Torquill and a friend to some of the more powerful local faerie denizens, Toby isn’t allowed her wish. The death of Evening Winterrose, hated friend and beloved irritant, and her last, powerful curse drag Toby back into the wonderful nightmare-world existing in tandem with our San Francisco: a world of cat-like rose goblins, doors into the Summerlands, runaway changelings, and an ancient sea witch. It’s a world where one wrong step – political or otherwise – could kill you. Or worse.
As you can see, this debut novel from Seanan McGuire plays to type; yet I can say, without a doubt, that this is the best urban fantasy novel I’ve read in five years. I make this assertion drawing from a pool of novels by Charlaine Harris, Tanya Huff, Emma Bull, Patricia Briggs, and others.
One important element to any urban fantasy is the urban aspect: it’s not enough for the narrative to take place in any city, where the urban center is poorly described and becomes passive background. The city must become as much a character as any changeling investigator, with clearly described locales and an affecting atmosphere. McGuire succeeds in spades here: I have never been to San Francisco, but the city came to life for me in this novel and the immediacy of that understanding heightened my immersion in the story. Rosemary and Rue was clearly written by someone who has walked many miles in that city and is intimately acquainted with its heart.
McGuire’s main character, October Daye, is as strongly and uniquely portrayed as San Francisco. Toby, as a halfblood and a PI, could so easily have become a bland cipher; instead, she is a believable, strong, and yet flawed heroine with a nuanced voice. Toby is almost perpetually annoyed and sleep-deprived, spends most of the novel subsisting on caffeine and sheer stubbornness, and yet her perspective never devolves into tiresome whinging. She is a deeply-hurt woman who is stumbling toward a measure of recovery while trying to do right by a friend and, incidentally, save her own life. The resulting journey is fascinating: the perspective is truly first person limited, so Toby sometimes does seemingly stupid things and is blind to things the reader may think are apparent – but things aren’t always so blazingly clear, are they, when you’re the one experiencing some serious and real drama?
Beyond developing a compellingly dynamic protagonist and portraying San Francisco in an absorbingly realistic manner, McGuire succeeded in creating a three-dimensional fabric of reality: the other characters in the narrative aren’t just background for Toby to interact with. They are people who have lives and backgrounds that are clearly important both to the current story and whatever is to come. The King of Cats has a long history with October, the moonstruck-mad Queen wasn’t always so, and the kitsune duchess seems to tend secrets as much as roses in her underhill home. They are all worlds unto themselves. This is the best sort of debut novel: a window into a reality ready-made for exploration, where causality is as much a force as it is in our real lives.
Further, McGuire’s depiction of Faerie and its denizens reveals that an incredible amount of accrued knowledge went into the world of Rosemary and Rue. She delves beyond kitsune and selkies, beyond even Daoin Sidhe and Cait Sidhe, into coblynau and Tylwyth Tegs: while the specifics of her society and much of these faeries’ interactions may be all McGuire, each of these creatures exists in folklore. Anyone interested in faerie lore and folklore, especially of the United Kingdom (in this novel), will be incredibly delighted by the breadth
and depth of the author’s research.
Rosemary and Rue isn’t without its flaws – at times, the exposition overbalances from stage-setting to distracting, and the mystery does seem to wander a bit aimlessly in the middle – but the exhilaration of getting to know this particular San Francisco and this particular Faerie more than compensate for any of those drawbacks. Moreover, these are flaws that I don’t expect will continue past this debut: the occasional over-exposition was due to initial worldbuilding, and any issues with plot pacing are overcome with experience. Considering that DAW is poised to release two more titles in the October Daye series and that the author’s blog indicates she is currently working on the fourth and fifth titles, McGuire is daily gaining more experience as a storyteller. I look forward to each Toby novel being better than the last, and can’t wait to get my hands on them. Honestly: if you’re an appreciator of urban fantasy and you’re looking for some new blood that’s actually vital, it’s imperative that you pick up Rosemary and Rue.
This review was originally published at my blog on May 8th, 2009.