Rosemary and Rue

by Seanan McGuire

Cover image

Series: October Daye #1
Publisher: DAW
Copyright: September 2009
ISBN: 0-7564-0571-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 346

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October Daye is a changeling, the child of a fairy mother and a human father. She lives in a world where fairy is hidden, having retreated from the sight of humans after the wars and burnings of ages past, while maintaining a tenuous existence alongside human civilization. Those with fairy blood use glamours and illusions to appear human, to blend in, but maintain their courts and their connections with the Summerlands in hidden places and strange corners. There's a strong social pecking order in fairy, and Toby started near the bottom of it: changelings are at best servants, scorned and manipulated by the pure-bloods. But Toby has won knighthood for her service to one of the fairy dukes and has a reputation as an investigator for fairy problems (using a human job as a private investigator as cover). She's also married a human man and has a daughter she adores (neither of whom know her true identity). Life isn't bad.

That is, until she tries to track down those responsible for the kidnapping of her duke's wife and child and is caught and imprisoned for fourteen years, completely destroying her life.

We meet the first Toby in the prologue; we meet the second in the main story. She's had everything she cared about ripped from her and has sunk into a serious depression, avoiding all of her old friends from combined grief and shame at failing her mission. Since she can't give them any explanation, her husband left her and her daughter won't talk to her. And then she's pulled against her will into the investigation of a murder by iron, a curse that may kill her, and the world that destroyed her.

This is one of those delightful urban fantasies that contain absolutely no vampires, werewolves, or zombies. McGuire draws from much more varied sources, mostly Celtic. It's also an urban fantasy with a coherent (and huge) mythology, one with substantial world-building and thought. I've read a few other urban fantasies that use Celtic mythology as their foundation, but this is the most comprehensive, well-constructed, and interesting world I've seen. (It helps for me that it's set in San Francisco.)

McGuire also does a much better than average job with the first-person protagonist. A kick-ass heroine is, of course, standard for the genre, and Toby Daye doesn't disappoint, but she's also more complex than most. For one, she starts the book miserable in ways that are profound, meaningful, and hard to easily solve, and she deals with that via realistic avoidance, gallows humor, wry courage, and repression of her emotions. Despite how badly she's hurt, Rosemary and Rue is not a book about angst, but it's still a book about real consequences and emotional pain that doesn't easily go away.

It's also a book about class, and about the impact of class, and about the exhaustion and stress of having to live by other people's rules. Changelings are the lower class of the fairy world (echoed by Toby's job bagging groceries and her struggle to pay her rent), caught in a complex system of rules enforced on them by people with more power and the belief they have the right to use it. Unlike a lot of these stories, the changelings haven't taken this lying down, nor is Toby the only changeling who hates it; there's an active resistance of sorts, which Toby has also been in touch with. But, also more realistically than the standard urban fantasy fare, that resistance has its own pathologies, its own dangers, and living among the outcast isn't necessarily safe, or clean, or comfortable, or without its own web of obligations and rules. Toby has fought her way up the class ladder a degree, but she also knows how hard that process is, and how easy it is to fall back down again. This is great stuff; it adds a complex realism to an urban fantasy setting, and I wish there was more of it in the subgenre.

The plot is fast-moving and full of hard decisions, forcing Toby to reconnect with her old life in order to keep herself alive. At times, it can feel a bit like a tour of the world-building, but the reasons for the tour are well-defended in the plot and the world-building is interesting enough that I never minded. It's not a puzzle-based detective story; there is a whodunnit core, but this is not the sort of book where the reader is expected to put together the clues. It's instead closer to the noir pattern where Toby gets beaten, shot at, and stabbed in the process of flushing out the villain and figuring out what's at stake and why the victim was murdered. (And that reason is a satisfying revelation, one tied deeply into the background mythology, and one that I expect will be significant in future books of this series.) Of the other urban fantasy I've read, I'd compare it in tone with Kim Harrison's Dead Witch Walking in its willingness to be nasty to the protagonist, but Toby is a more complex and more interesting viewpoint character.

I'm amazed that this is McGuire's first novel. It does have a bit of the first-novel tendency to stuff the story full of world-building, as if so many ideas have built up that it's hard to control the flood. The infodumping is noticable at times. But the first-person perspective keeps that under control, and the writing is confident and strong. It is, in some technical respects, a better-written book than McGuire's later Feed (written under the open pseudonym Mira Grant), although it lacks Feed's perfect fictional moment.

I'm very impressed, and will definitely be reading the rest of the series; I want to see more of this world. Recommended; one of the better urban fantasies I've encountered.

Followed by A Local Habitation.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-11-17

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21