Thursday, June 20, 2013

Rosemary and Rue

I came to this series by way of one my new video-reviewer addictions: Sursum Ursa, whose first review was of Grand Central Arena, also the subject of one of my own posts from last year. I think I'm a little pickier than she is, on the whole, but her commentary on really everything in the Stuff You Like series is on-point and funny. Give her a try!

Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Moderate (346 pages)
Publication: September 1, 2009 from DAW
Premise: October Daye used to walk the line between two worlds as a changeling, but when the world of fae causes her to lose everything she loves in the human world, she withdraws from both. But the death of an old friend draws her back into the game-- the dying curse of Countess Evening Winterrose binds October to either find Evening's killer....or her own death.
Warnings: mild gore, implied torture, implied sexual abuse
Recommendation: The worldbuilding in Rosemary and Rue is quite strong, and the heroine realistically reads as older and jaded-but-hopeful. It can spend a little too much time getting lost in angst or side characters, but it's a solid series beginning and definitely worth a look.

What makes this one grim but fun:

The book opens with October "Toby" Daye on what should be a predictable mission. The stakes are higher because her liege lord Sylvester Toruqill's family is missing, but she ought to be just tracking her mark to see if anything turns up. When she's spotted, she realizes that she's been lured there as part of a trap and is then turned into a koi and thrown into the nearest pond. She spends the next fourteen years there with only the dimmest of access to her human memories until the spell breaks. It's an unusual beginning to an urban fantasy series, and all the more intriguing for that; most protagonists tend to be either well-established in their careers or just starting out, with cynicism and profound loss waiting until much later, if ever. Once Toby is out of the spell, her old life is shattered. Her husband and now-grown daughter refuse to speak to her, in part because they evidently sensed some dishonesty in the life they all head together before, and her bitterness at PI work leaves her working the night shift at whatever retail place will have her. She's numb from her experiences, and justifiably so, when messages on her answering machine leave her bound by a curse. 

Evening Winterrose, Countess of Goldengreen, was ancient and powerful in San Francisco-- she was also one of the few people Toby trusted when she became human again. When she knew people were coming for her, she tried to contact Toby, but she left a death curse instead when she felt her death coming. Toby has to investigate again, reconnect with friends and enemies and lovers who stir up old memories at every turn. The worldbuilding really comes into its own as Toby talks to leaders of local court and visits knowes, closely guarded places that hold connections to pockets of the Faerie realm. Many of these people are living in places where they can create their own reality with magic, spending their time on everything from diplomacy to growing glass roses. Threats here are just as real and deadly as they are in the mortal world, but the attention given to elaborate manners and the glossiness of illusions mutes the edges; purebloods can live forever unless they are attacked and killed, so they have the time to play long games.

Amid all the beauty and color and even tacky brightness at times, the stark blood and roses imagery of the curse killing Toby stands out. Evening meant it to bind, and riding the memories in her blood left Toby even more vulnerable to the curse, which attacks Toby with psychic thorns and nightmare images of being killed with iron. Toby reflects at one point that everything in Fae seems to come back to blood and roses eventually, and that helps seal the curse as something darkly traditional. Evening and Toby weren't close, but Toby would have helped solve her murder anyway-- unfortunately for Toby, Evening was a traditional pureblood and trusted formal bindings over anything as ephemeral as friendship. This central struggle between purebloods and thin-blooded changelings runs through the novel and manifests in almost every scene, helping the prejudice feel real. Changelings aren't slaves, but they're second-class citizens and often forced to live in the mortal world. They're too human to be accepted among the immortals and too magical to live in human society without careful illusions, so they're vulnerable on all sides and not given much respect. Many of the younger ones wind up at Home, where Toby spent some of her teenage years. Kids there work for Devin, an older changeling who offers them protection in exchange for loyalty and obedience; they are often abused, but many of those who leave Home or never make it there at all end up dead without a liege or family to protect them.

Many characters feel like just part of the investigation, there to provide a clue or healing magic, but a few stand out: Evening is imposing, even in death, and Tybalt is easily the most entertaining person in the novel. Tybalt is the local King of Cats, monarch of an always-moving and tempestuous Court. He openly mocks Toby about the trauma of being a fish and seems to barely tolerate her presence, but she tuns to him at one point for formal aid because she trusts his sense of obligation more than a more easily granted favor from a friend. There are hints here that he might be an adversarial love interest of sorts down the road (even in their first shared scene if you squint), but there's not an ounce of openly expressed tenderness between them, and that makes it work. They fence with words and promises and the threat of future obligation, illustrating how the Fae normally deal with each other more clearly than Toby's interactions with people who frankly like her better. Tybalt might have (suppressed) feelings for Toby, but he's a cat-as-person first and foremost, with all the self-interest and disdain that that implies. Those well-centered priorities spread well across the rest of the cast. I miraculously don't hate Toby's potential love....pentagon, maybe, in large part because these people react to her as people, with their own obligations and needs and priorities. No one is mooning over her, and she's very willing to stomp her own romantic inclinations without mercy if they might interfere with the lives of her friends of superiors. Forbidden love might be romantic, but Toby was burned that way years ago and has no patience for it anymore. That alone yanks this book away from the well-trod paths of romantic tropes and establishes Toby as an investigator first, much to the story's benefit.

The red pen:

The magic is great in many places, but it doesn't always make sense when the rules are applied backwards to how Toby would have lived her life before the Great Koi Ordeal. Knowing that most magic is ripped off with the incapacitating light of dawn is a good worldbuilding touch, but Toby spent at least six years all but married to a mortal and raising a mostly mortal child. Baby magic can hide a child's unusual appearance, but Toby somehow went through the years without being caught without her illusions at home, or caught by the dawn on a stakeout and spotted. Having the fae hidden by a mixture of illusion and humans ignoring things works well enough, but Toby's weak magic makes it seem as though she, like her mother, was both cruel and selfish to get involved in a mortal marriage with such a risk of being injured, discovered, or killed. The worst more or less happened: she vanished without a trace and left her family to mourn, only to come back fourteen years later and be sorry that she's locked out of their lives. Her pain is real and well-expressed, but the fact that she sees being a presence in her daughter's life as only a matter of time and has taken pictures of her from a distance makes her harder to accept. No character has to be perfect, but the idea that she sees that level of pain and dishonesty as par for the course is off-putting, to say the least. Toby herself was ripped from her half-mortal home when she was seven in the company of her mother, leaving her never-discussed mortal father to believe that they'd died in a fire. Neither incident is Toby's fault, but the way Toby talks a big game about prejudice against changelings while pitying her mother, never discussing her father, and exploiting humans she claims to's a large and hypocritical blind spot that does damage to her otherwise strong persona as a reluctant hero.

Some moments of tension also don't work-- when Toby falls off a cliff into the ocean, it ought to be terrifying because she's still so trapped by the memories of being a powerless fish. Unfortunately, the person falling with her has been described as being of Kelpie descent three or times by then, so it's inevitable that she's going to be rescued in a hurry. The lead-in to the fall is undistinguished enough that the whole sequence takes away from some of Toby's better pieces of trauma and recovery, like when she finds herself back at the pond where she was trapped. McGuire mostly makes good use of space, but situations with obvious escape hatches drag on, and Toby is unconscious often enough that it's deeply remarkable she doesn't have brain damage. The people with her for most of these escapades are, generally speaking, both unreliable and uninteresting. Toby tends to end up unwillingly traveling with teenagers or underpowered changelings; at one point she's given an escort of two thin-blooded changelings who are described as having a genuine relationship and it's obvious from the moment we're told this that one of them is going to die. These characters establish important aspects of Toby's character, showing both that the vulnerable often see her as a hero because she tries to hard to help them and that she is deeply uncomfortable with that label. While that's an important function, it tends to leave those characters' inner turmoil or motivations a blank slate-- it's as though characters need to be pureblood or potentially very dangerous to matter as fully realized people, and that makes it harder to care whether she can help them or not.

If Tybalt is the excellent point in this love many-sided polygon (I'm counting four past and potential love interests), Devin and Connor are the weak spots. Devin, as the leader of Home, helped Toby out of a tough spot in her teenage years and may have loved her....but he was also abusive to her and continues to abuse the teenagers in his care. She, for whatever reason of sentimentality, loves him and trusts him, even choosing to go to him before more objectively trustworthy allies. It's odd, especially when she goes from thinking grimly about how she learned to stand up for herself and finally leave him to almost crying at how grateful she is for his aid. On the more emotionally flat end of the spectrum, Toby does not pine over Connor, who used to be involved with her before he married Rayseline, the daughter of her liege lord, in her absence. He, however, trails around after her to provide sad eyes and seemingly nothing useful to the plot. There are hints here that Raysel came back from her kidnapping damaged, and since Toby was investigating that crime when she was turned into a koi, it's probably going to be relevant to the series. The problem is that it isn't necessarily key to this already character-dense book, and the extra chatting and racing around in Connor's company accomplishes very little that couldn't be consolidated or shifted onto another character. He misses Toby and doesn't love Raysel, but Toby refuses to damage that family and wants nothing to do with him; it's a sensible point that ends up pounded into the ground for largely inexplicable reasons.

On the whole, Rosemary and Rue manages to hit the sweet spot of being grimly realistic without wallowing in gore or oceans of barely-justified self-pity, and that's a rare thing in this genre. Toby's emotions are genuine and tend to be justified, with her flaws coming across as straightforward problems of trust and fear that can be explained without being waved away with excuses. The minor characters definitely falter a bit next to Toby herself, but the rest of the series is definitely earning a spot on the to-read list. 

Prospects: This is the first book in the October Daye series. The most recent, Ashes of Honor, came out last September, and the next, Chimes at Midnight, is slated for this September.The series has titles projected out to ten books.

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