Having thoroughly enjoyed 'Rosemary and Rue' (review here), the first book in Seanan McGuire's 'October Daye' series, I found myself fascinated by where she would take the series. After all, book one is much more than just a particular murder case, it's an introduction, not only to our heroine, Toby Daye, but to the world of wonder which owns her, however much she tries to fight it. You see, she's a changeling, a creature half human and half Fae, and that makes her both an outcast from Faerie but inherently always part of it.
The inevitable direction is to gradually draw her back into the world she almost managed to leave. After all, what sort of urban fantasy series would this be if she took the urban fantasy out of it? So, we find that Toby is clubbing with other changelings, visiting the Luidaeg weekly and allowing Spike the rose goblin to live in her apartment. She's also got her private investigator's license back and that's an easy way for her liege, Duke Sebastian Torquill, to send her on missions that expand our understanding of the world they collectively live in.
What's surprising is where the first expansion comes. Rather than build the area we've already seen, it takes us into an independent fae county by the name of Tamed Lightning which sits between two rival duchies, Shadowed Hills and Dreamer's Glass. The former is Duke Torquill's domain, while the latter is the territory of the ambitious and touchy Duchess Riordan. Tamed Lightning is therefore a political buffer that aims to 'delay the inevitable supernatural turf war'. It's also run by the Duke's niece, Countess January O'Leary, who isn't answering his calls.
So, off goes Toby with Quentin, a foster at Shadowed Hills, as her assistant, to Fremont, the earthly location of Tamed Lightning, to figure out what's going on over there and to ensure that January is safe. Naturally, what Toby finds is a mystery that goes much deeper than the Countess wondering why her uncle isn't answering her calls either. In fact, that's likely to be the easiest part of the mystery to figure out. Why there's almost nobody left alive in Tamed Lightning is a far more intriguing concern.
I was in two minds about this book for much of its running time. The heart of the book is a very cut down Agatha Christie-esque mystery, with its single isolated location, small cast and growing count of corpses. Clearly someone in Tamed Lightning is the killer, but who? How many more have to die before Toby figures that out? And how is Seanan McGuire going to spin this out to fill a paperback that runs almost four hundred pages?
A number of components work well, though most are tied to the setup. The single isolated location is ALH Computing, which exists a little in our world but mostly in the Summerlands, the world of magic that exists just beyond our own. It's not only Tamed Lightning but also a computer company that creates software and hardware capable of functioning inside Faerie. The small cast are the remnants of its workforce, Fae one and all, who both stayed after their colleagues began to be murdered and survived that fate themselves. There are only eight of them as we begin, which includes the Countess, but the number is whittled down quickly.
With so few suspects, the success of the book relies partly on a collection of twists and reveals and partly on the development of the characters. McGuire does fairly at the latter but somewhat better at the former. Both add little mysteries to the bigger one, the solution of which is far from a surprise even if it's not obvious in entirety. I doubt I'm alone in enjoying the little mysteries more than the big one.
For instance, characters are generally introduced with an explanation of their Fae heritage, which does sound a lot better than saying 'their racial make-up'. For instance, Colin is a selkie and Elliott a bannick and we discover that within a page of first meeting them. Peter is a Cornish pixie, which takes a little longer to reveal, but Gordan tells Toby that she's of coblynau heritage as her conversation starter. Yet Alex Olson, for whom Toby falls amazingly quickly, and his sister Terrie, for whom Quentin falls amazingly quickly, do not get such speedy explanations because that way lies plot.
Surely the most interesting character, and certainly the most imaginative, is April, an oak dryad whose tree was bulldozed to make way for condos. Jan saved her and adopted her, placing her instead into the ALH computer network, where she lives in an 'information tree' and serves, in part, as the 'interoffice paging system'. I've read many books whose imaginary worlds revolve around technology or magic, but rarely both at the same time. That's a tough challenge to approach and I can't say that McGuire didn't have trouble doing so, but, if ALH Computing didn't knock my socks off, April came a lot closer. What a great idea and what fascinating development! I'd call it the biggest success of the book and still want more.
The other characters are defined less by who they are and more by what they are. We learn about what must be done after the death of a selkie (and that's not much of a spoiler, because Colin's the first character we meet who then shows up dead) but we learn little about Colin himself, no more than we learn about the previous victims which soon come to light. We find out more about what they were, and what that means in the context of Faerie, than who they were.
The best characterisation here is of the world that McGuire continues to build. For instance, we really shouldn't call the night haunts characters, though we do enticingly meet one here. We're not supposed to interact with them; we're supposed to understand them through their work, which is to replace fae corpses with simulacra that won't betray Faerie to the human world. They don't do that here, which is another mystery, because they always do that. A Fae dies, the night haunts take care of their body, the end. It's the story that surrounds what they do, why they do it and what the ramifications are when it isn't being done that matters, not the creatures themselves.
I believe what surprised me most was how far away from the characters we met in 'Rosemary and Rue' we get here. Just as Tamed Lightning is a step away from Shadowed Hills, those whom we now expect to be regular characters, like Duke Sebastian, Lily in the Japanese Garden and Tybalt, the King of Cats, are a step away from the story. They do feature in it, but mostly at a remove. I can only expect that Seanan McGuire did that very deliberately, as an aid to making this world a much bigger place than what we saw of it in the first book. I wonder how long that'll continue until we're dragged back to more familiar territory.
So this mostly wasn't what I expected from a second Toby Daye novel and it's not entirely successful, a regular thought in my mind being how long McGuire could spin out such a restrictive grand mystery. However, it's an enjoyable read that gives Toby plenty of opportunity to grow and the world in which she lives a good deal of similar opportunity too. I'm still looking forward to the next book in the series, which is called 'An Artificial Night'. ~~ Hal C F Astell