Having thoroughly enjoyed the InCryptid series, albeit some more than others, I was keen to follow up by exploring Seanan McGuire's first and longest series, the October Daye novels, which currently sit at ten with three more announced.
I actually read this twice, once a few months ago without taking notes and then again recently to see how it stood up, taking quite a few notes for this review. It stood up very well, even though I knew whodunit, and it isn't surprising that she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2010 as this is a strong first novel indeed.
It's an urban fantasy novel, which introduces the hardboiled detective genre to the world of Faerie, with surprising confidence for a new author. It does a great job at introducing a universe, establishing rituals, rules and a variety of species as wide as InCryptid readers might expect, but never does so at the expense of the story, which is a murder mystery with an unwilling detective.
The prologue is a brutal way to introduce us to October Daye, usually known as Toby. She's what's known as a changeling, half human and half fae, in her case Daoine Sidhe, which means that she has to put on a magic disguise every day to hide unnatural giveaways like her pointed ears. Her fae side has her fealty sworn to Duke Sylvester Torquill, but her human side takes more of her time, as she's married to a human called Cliff; they have a daughter, Gillian or Gilly; and they live happily together in San Francisco. She's also a private investigator, who mostly works on routine human cases but takes the odd one tied to Faerie as needed.
That doesn't sound brutal, right? Just wait. Duke Sylvester's own wife and daughter have been kidnapped and Toby is following his brother, Simon, who's suspected of being involved. She believes she's incognito as she trails him into the Japanese Tea Gardens in Golden Gate Park, but it's a trap. Simon promptly turns her into a koi and leaves her in the pond. For fourteen years until the magic wears off. Now, that's brutal.
Lost from her family, who eventually moved on, and culturally adrift in a new time, she's keeping herself away from Faerie, hiding from it in the graveyard shift at Safeway. But, as tends to happen, she's brought right back in when an old fae friend, Lady Evening Winterrose, is murdered. And this isn't as simple as a former PI investigating a friend's death; Evening knew it was coming and rang Toby for help, leaving not only messages on her answerphone but a carefully phrased curse, effectively binding Toby to the search. Either she searches and finds Evening's murderer or she's killed by the curse. She ably describes her long relationship with Lady Evening in an exclamation: 'We hated each other so well and loved each other so badly.' I appreciated that line.
The mystery is well framed, if not particularly deep. I figured out the killer on my first time through, but only late in the novel; my second time through highlighted some clever telegraphing that I had missed. I liked how Toby uses both human detection skills and fae magic, such as her inherited ability to use blood magic to plumb the memories of the victim. I should add that not only does this not work like the sort of magical shortcuts you're imagining in 'CSI: Faerie' (no convenient killer's face, for instance), but it does actively heighten the curse, riddling Toby with pain at periodic points during her investigation, often at highly inconvenient moments. Really, it just starts her onto a track, but she then has to follow it to figure anything out.
Another angle I really liked was the one where changelings are less powerful magically than purebloods; it might seem logical, but I've read too many books and watched too many movies where children of two species are somehow far more powerful than either. That doesn't happen here and, in keeping with the hardboiled detective story, she gets beaten up. A lot. I was actually surprised on my second reading that this doesn't really start until page 174 because I'd remembered it so strongly. I left it first time round in the mindset that she was getting shot once every other chapter and her wounds ripped back open in the ones in between, but it isn't quite that overdone.
The world building is highly impressive, though some of it is clearly aimed at future books. For instance, at various points in the story, Toby visits a few different knowes, the 'little pockets of reality balanced between the mortal world and the Summerlands' where important people in Faerie live. Some of these are surely going to be re-visited in future books. For example, the Queen of the Mists, who may or may not be mad, is introduced here but then carefully worked around. I'm sure she'll be back soon enough and with a vengeance.
Other characters, of course, die in this book or lose their importance once their stories are told. I won't spoil any of those but I will say that I wasn't expecting one of them. I understand why it had to happen, more the second time round than the first, but it was hard to take because the character had great potential which is snuffed out before it could be explored. There's other potential here, especially between those characters who don't like each other, or actively hate each other, but have a sort of mutual respect and, often, a trust.
Having come to this series from the InCryptid books, I look forward to exploring how it grows. Based on this first volume alone, I have to say that I already like October Daye more than Verity Price. She's more grounded and less sassy, which makes her a lot more believable. She's also just as tough but much more vulnerable; fourteen years spent as a koi guarantees that. I can't, however, say that I prefer either world yet because I haven't read enough of this one to make a fair comparison. Thus far, I'm enjoying both and I'll happily acknowledge the potential for this one to build considerably over the series.
One thing I hope doesn't show up is the clichéd love interest; I never took to the hunky Dominic de Luca, Verity's unlikely boyfriend. Toby isn't a saint and past relationships are important here but future ones aren't important to the plot this time around. In fact, the one that seems most important to Toby isn't a romantic one at all; it's the one she never had with her daughter because she spent fourteen years in a pond. It certainly wouldn't surprise me to see Gilly, a quarter fae herself, show up at some point and I want to see how that broken relationship will be mended (or not), but a good part of me really wants McGuire to wait on that front.
There's very little not to like here. The mystery could certainly have been deeper, but that's hardly a big problem. There's one part that still doesn't ring quite right for me, which ties to why nobody was able to find Toby as a koi. I bought that until McGuire tried to explain it and I found that the explanation spoiled it for me, from a dog in the night time angle. Again, it's not a big problem in the grand scheme of things. Other than that, I can only bring up how deep McGuire went, or rather didn't go, with some characters, but she only had 350 pages to play with and I can't disagree with her prioritisation; I'm just imagining a 450 page version instead.
What I should be doing is quitting this review and pulling 'A Local Habitation' off the shelf to leap into next month. I feel grounded in this world now and want to see where it takes me. ~~ Hal C F Astell