Seven novels in, Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series has settled comfortably into its groove. A pinch of sedition, a dollop of mortal peril, a soupcon of familial angst and a sprinkling of underbaked civil rights commentary, all undergirded by Toby’s pleasingly irreverent voice and some deftly handled folklore – one of the pleasures of reading these books is undoubtedly their familiarity. Although our heroine’s personal circumstances do change as the series progresses, the novels’ plots, themes and tone remain essentially the same. Once you have read one of them, you have, more or less, read them all.
In Chimes at Midnight, our favourite changeling PI/hero of the realm takes aim at the goblin fruit flooding the fae markets of San Francisco: a highly desirable drug for pureblood fae, it’s invariably fatal for changelings, who become addicted to it and forget to eat. When she discovers, however, that her monarch the Queen of the Mists is actually running the trade, and that moreover the said Queen is almost certainly an imposter, she sets her mind to finding the rightful Queen and deposing the tyrant.
For all Toby’s natural distrust of authority, and penchant for overthrowing royalty, it occurs to me that the series’ sentiment isn’t quite as republican as it appears: as with many fantasy texts since The Lord of the Rings, hereditary legitimacy is equated with suitability for governance. The key adjective associated with the Queen of the Mists once we learn that she’s an imposter is “false”: she’s a villain because she took a throne that wasn’t hers to take. She’s also unpredictable, bigoted and cruel where her replacement, the true Queen Arden, is, per future books in the series, reasonable, just and interested in changeling rights.
I’m not saying, of course, that every text has to hew to a given standard of ideological purity; frankly that’s just a recipe for bad art. I’m merely interested in the hidden generic assumptions of popular works and how they pull against apparently progressive content. Perhaps it’s in the nature of series fiction to be consolatory rather than exploratory: that is, as I said at the beginning of this review, one reason why people return to series, after all, because it’s comforting to know what you’re going to encounter. The Toby Daye series is a pleasure to read: McGuire’s world has enough texture to make it feel real and complex and messy; Toby herself, while somewhat broadly characterised, is sufficiently relatable that her relationships with her found family are genuinely heartwarming; the careful use of folklore and fairy tale gives the whole thing the ring of truth. It’s a pleasure. But not a very substantial one.