The ninth entry in Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series, A Rose-Red Chain introduces a welcome breath of fresh air into what was in danger of becoming a rather repetitive collection of plots, motifs and themes. Instead of charging off into mortal physical peril as she usually does, changeling PI Toby is in this instalment tasked with diplomatic negotiations: in this case, persuading the belligerent King Rhys of the Kingdom of Silences not to wage war against her monarch, Queen Arden in the Mists.
She is, naturally, monumentally bad at this.
Putting Toby on the political stage is an interesting choice: although previous instalments have shown her to be well-connected – she’s dating a King of Cats, her squire is the (disguised) Crown Prince of the Westlands, she’s on first-name terms with the Luidaeg, a Firstborn who terrifies pretty much all of Faerie – her adventures up to this point have tended to treat her as a powerful individual rather than someone moving through a web of influence and connections. They’ve been about her ability to investigate disappearances, to draw on contacts for information, to fight, to use her blood-working magic. We haven’t really seen her try to change Faerie in any kind of systematic way.
It’s quite fun, then, seeing her navigate the intricacies of a strange court, fending off the icy hostility of the pureblood fae who believe that she, being a changeling, is worse than nothing. The plot, as is usual for this series, rattles on at a good pace, bringing new revelations at every turn. Magical mutilation! Goblin fruit! Changeling cats! All good stuff. The climax does inevitably involve Toby suffering catastrophic injuries that would kill anyone else, but for the most part there is refreshingly little blood.
On the other hand, placing Toby in a diplomatic context does kind of reveal the paucity of the series’ political world – or, more specifically, Toby’s political imagination. Toby’s soapbox issue is changeling rights, and, given that the series hews very closely to her point of view, it’s also the primary political issue we encounter in Faerie. But Toby’s efforts to improve the lot of changelings, most of whom are very much less privileged than she, are for the most part reactive rather than proactive: she’ll help specific changelings, usually magically, when the plot gives her the opportunity to do so, but she rarely takes the initiative to alter changelings’ status in fae society in general. (It doesn’t really help that one of the main ways the series indicates which characters are sympathetic is whether they are nice to changelings or not: the action Toby habitually takes against corrupt fae rulers therefore does technically improve the lot of changelings, but that’s not usually her immediate motivation in deposing them.)
This is a problem because Toby’s trajectory throughout the series has been about her coming from a place of oppression – her changeling status has seen her abused by the pureblood community and, at the start of the first book, turned into a fish for 14 years, leaving her at the very edge of both fae and human society when she’s restored – to a place of privilege: she’s built a family of sorts around her, cementing her place in the fae social order. As readers we’ve been conditioned to care about changelings and to be outraged at their treatment, because we care about Toby and all that she has lost. In this context, the loss of the urgency with which the earlier books approached changeling rights, Toby’s failure to give the changelings behind her a hand up, feels jarring, at odds with our understanding of Toby as a champion of the oppressed and an all-round good person.
Of course, not every novel has to be a trenchant political treatise; it just so happens that politics and ideas are a big part of what I read for, and a big part of what I remember and find notable about what I read. The Toby Daye novels are fun, light reads that make full use of the resonances of Celtic folklore, and A Red-Rose Chain is a strong entry in the series. That it’s not as politically conscious as I personally would like it to be is not wholly its fault.