Review: The Winter Long

You don’t have to read very much of Seanan McGuire’s urban fantasy series about the changeling PI Toby Daye to realise that it’s centrally concerned with blood. Both literally and figuratively: Toby’s investigations are helped by her ability to decipher people’s thoughts and experiences by “riding” – tasting – their blood; and, on a more metaphorical level, the bonds of family and inheritance are extremely important to the action of the series.

The Winter Long, the eighth Toby Daye novel, is no exception. The book sees the return of Simon Torquill, the man who at the beginning of the series turned our heroine into a fish for fourteen years, dooming her to the loss of her mortal family. Understandably, Toby is less than thrilled when he knocks on her door, but his reappearance leads her to some revelations about her powerful mother, Amandine, and about her own place in Faerie’s highly stratified social structure, continuing the process of growing into her social role that the series as a whole charts.

What makes these novels stand out as urban fantasy is the way they exploit the existing potential of myth and legend – specifically Celtic myth and legend – to examine themes of family and belonging, rather than simply using them for aesthetic flavour (as, say, Katherine Addison’s The Angel of the Crows does with steampunk). Inheritance and dynasty are key concerns of Celtic myth: I’m thinking particularly of The Mabinogion, with its four branches woven around the family of Pryderi, the king of Dyfed, its emphasis on lost children, unhappy marriages, heirships and sibling loyalty. The fae in such stories, with their strange bargains and arcane conditions (think of Pwyll trading places with Arawn, lord of Annwn, for a year and a day), often stand in for the fear of the other, the outsider; the people whose traditions and customs you do not know, who you might end up mortally offending accidentally. So questions of belonging naturally attach themselves to stories about the fae too. As a result, McGuire’s series feels fundamentally steeped in fae lore and folktale in a way that many urban fantasy novels don’t manage, lending it surprising resonance and depth. There’s real darkness and peril here.

It does have to be said that, considered as an individual installment, The Winter Long is not particularly memorable: even after having read an exhaustive account of the novel’s plot at the October Daye Wiki to prompt my memory, I still don’t have a good sense of the shape of the book as a whole: its narrative arc, the fairytale motifs it’s working with, its overall aesthetic goals. That’s less of a problem with a novel like this, which sits slap-bang in the heart of a long, ongoing series: the Toby Daye books aren’t really meant to be read as standalones, despite the work McGuire does to orient new readers in each volume. But, ultimately, this is a novel that feels more like it’s doing set-up for later installments (despite being structurally complete: this isn’t a classic case of Middle Book Syndrome) than a text with an identity of its own.

Review: Black Sun

Is representation enough? It’s a question I’ve been turning over more and more lately, as mainstream SFF continues to wrestle with its patriarchal, colonial legacy, and as my own personal honeymoon period with SFF that looks beyond the straight white hegemony passes and (hopefully) matures into something more thoughtful. And it’s a question I find myself asking when it comes to thinking about Rebecca Roanhorse’s third novel (and first in a new series) Black Sun, a text which draws on the mythologies of the pre-colonial Americas to create a thriving multicultural fantasy world where queerness of multiple flavours is normalised – a world, in fact, that looks nothing like the medieval European paradigms so much of fantasy is based on. As someone who very much enjoys the work of Becky Chambers – which is pretty much all representation, like, queer representation is pretty much the Thing those books are doing – I’d have expected it to be right up my street. But, in fact, I have basically…nothing to say about it.

That’s partly because, while the worldbuilding eschews the conventions of Western fantasy, the plot structure is thoroughly familiar. Basically: the blind priest Serapio returns from exile to his parents’ country, Tova, in order to restore the Crow God to his rightful place in society, aided by Xiala, a larger-than-life bisexual sailor with mysterious marine powers. Meanwhile, the Sun Priest of Tova faces resistance from her fellow priests and the people of Tova in her attempts to reform the priesthood. This is a quest story, with a bit of tragico-political scheming thrown in; the characters are stock types who are, yes, queer where once they might not have been (although I think we can all agree that the promiscuous bisexual is as old as, like, the concept of bisexuality, and as for bisexual sailors – ), but not in a way that interestingly queers the story Roanhorse is telling. I’m not saying that queerness always has to have a plot purpose, just that – I’m struggling to find anything to grab onto in Black Sun, thematically.

The conclusion I’m reaching for, here, is that there’s not a lot going for Black Sun except for its inclusion of non-Western mythologies and characters, and the queerness of those characters. These are, to be clear, valuable things. And there are a couple of stand-out details that show how Roanhorse’s world is altered by default queerness: Xiala’s people, the Teek, are a deeply misandrist society who see Xiala’s attraction to men as shameful and sordid. That’s genuinely quite interesting. But we don’t spend any time among the Teek, and so the novel’s structure and plot are not markedly affected by their presence. Roanhorse doesn’t seem to have anything to say about how default queerness might alter how society works, or how a culture constructed around non-Western mythologies might tell stories differently.

Black Sun is not a badly written novel. It’s strongly plotted, well-paced; the prose is competent and readable. But it’s not memorable. It has nothing really original to say to match the originality of bringing these pre-colonial American mythologies into a work of commercial fantasy. Simple representation is, for me, no longer enough to make a text exciting and invigorating and challenging. Diverse characters deserve diverse storytelling, narratives that question and trouble literary conventions. For me, Black Sun doesn’t achieve that.

Review: The Dollmaker

This review contains spoilers.

Nina Allan’s unsettling 2019 novel The Dollmaker is one of those books that confounds readerly expectations at nearly every turn. It’s the story of two doll collectors, Andrew and Bramber, who strike up a correspondence when Andrew answers a classified of Bramber’s asking for information about the fictional 20th century dollmaker Ewa Chaplin. After some months of this correspondence – of which we’re given Bramber’s letters, but never Andrew’s – Andrew finds himself infatuated, and sets off on a journey into the rural south of England to visit Bramber, who, as we know from clues in her letters that Andrew doesn’t seem to have picked up on, lives in a group home for people with mental illnesses. Interleaved with Bramber’s letters and Andrew’s first-person narration of his journey are a number of dark little fairytales purportedly by Ewa Chaplin that feature uncanny echoes of events in Andrew’s life. The figure of a dwarf, in particular – Andrew is just four feet nine inches high – crops up again and again, usually in the context of a forbidden love for a queen.

It’s hard to know what to make of these echoes, and Allan seems keen to uphold this uncertainty rather than resolve it: Chaplin’s stories are neither comfortingly hived-off from the main narrative, in which case we could read them as metaphorical only, nor literally connected to it on the level of plot. Similarly, Allan deflates our readerly expectations of Andrew’s story: his journey to meet Bramber against her will feels like it will end in disappointment and possibly murder (as Abigail Nussbaum points out), but instead there is a sense almost of anti-climax, a refusal to resolve the story either way. The future remains open for this pair: maybe something will come of this unlikely meeting of minds, but then again maybe it will not.

I think there is meant to be something redemptive and perhaps humanising about this uncertainty: both Andrew and Bramber are damaged, Andrew by an abusive relationship in his young adulthood and a lifetime of bullying and discrimination based on his stature, and Bramber by what she sees as her childhood betrayal of her mother. Their tentative rapprochement at the end perhaps signals an entry for both of them into a more moderate mode of life, one marked by the small compromises and uncertainties that we see in real, healthy relationships, especially at their beginnings, rather than the grand Gothic dramas of Ewa Chaplin’s stories or the hideousness that characterised both of their childhoods. An entry, in other words, into the world of what we might consider literary realism, out of the world of high romance or crime drama or horror story, all the genres that the novel as a whole flirts with.

Which is certainly an interesting thing to do: a process of de-fictionalisation, almost, of making these characters no longer characters who need to be in a story, and making that a triumph for both of them. But as a reader I personally found it unsatisfying: I wanted the text to cohere, to suggest possible meanings a little more forcefully, rather than leaving absolutely everything open and unresolved. That said, I wouldn’t hesitate to read more of Allan’s work: The Dollmaker may have failed for me on the whole, but it was at least an interesting failure.

Review: Chimes at Midnight

Chimes at MidnightSeven 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.

Review: One Salt Sea

This review contains spoilers.

One Salt SeaFive books in, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Seanan McGuire’s Toby Daye series is very interested in family – both the nuclear kind and the found kind. It’s an interest that’s been present throughout the series: in its procedural focus on biological parentage and the power carried in the blood; in the fairy lord Sylvester’s complicated relationship with his traumatised daughter Rayseline; in the importance that fae culture places on which of Oberon’s wives everyone is descended from. But it’s brought into sharp focus in One Salt Sea when Toby must investigate the kidnapping of three children – one of them her own estranged daughter Gillian – in order to save the fae kingdom from all-out war.

Toby has a lot to lose by this point: having begun the series in Rosemary and Rue as an outsider, lost to her human family because of Faerie and thus too angry at the fae to associate with them any more, she’s spent five books forming social and familial connections that cement her place in fae society. Many of these bonds are bonds of obligation, the fae being big on promises and formal reciprocal arrangements: Toby has sworn an oath to serve her lord Sylvester; she and the sea-witch the Luidaeg are connected by a somewhat convoluted system of favours and debts; and by the end of One Salt Sea she has officially taken on the young fae noble Quentin as her squire. It’s clear that these essentially legal relationships are founded in real love and respect, although this isn’t always the case: for instance, Toby’s ultimate allegiance technically lies with the unstable Queen of the Mists, for whom she has only contempt.

Her less formalised relationships aren’t any less strong: look at her sister of sorts, May, the Fetch who was supposed to be an omen of her death and ended up moving in when she failed to die. And by One Salt Sea Toby has not one but two possible love interests: Connor, the Selkie whose marriage to Rayseline has been dissolved because of Rayseline’s instability; and Tybalt, the King of Cats, whose relationship with Toby has been shaky in the past but is gradually becoming stronger.

That last thing is key, I think: one of the things that powers this series is this process of Toby settling herself into a new family and society, forming new links over time. These relationships feel lived in, and Toby feels embedded in her world as a result.

This embeddedness ties in to the theme of heroism that I wrote about in my review of the fourth novel in the series, Late Eclipses. It’s clear that Toby’s connections to her community enable her heroism: they give her the emotional resources to protect those she loves at her own expense, and to go on when they’re removed from her life. Towards the end of the novel, Toby saves Gillian’s life by doing something that will mean she’ll never see her again: their estrangement will be permanent. It’s a devastating choice, but it’s a choice that she survives because of the support she gets from her friends and found family. Similarly, when one of her love interests dies at the end of the book, we get the sense that she’ll go on despite her grief because of the people she still has around her – unlike many a romantic heroine.

This is quite a nuanced look at the important role that community plays in allowing individuals to do good, and it’s one of the things that marks the Toby Daye series out from a lot of urban fantasy, which tends to be rather individualistic in focus. I do think the novels continue to suffer from repetitiveness – there’s a lot of running around that doesn’t correspond to actual plot development – and McGuire’s writing isn’t as polished as it could be. But this sense of groundedness in a specific community, a specific world with its own social rules, means it’s a series that I’ll keep returning to when I’m in the mood for a light, fun, satisfying read.

Review: Late Eclipses

This review contains spoilers.

Late EclipsesIn this, the fourth novel in Seanan McGuire’s urban fantasy series following the exploits of fae PI October Daye, McGuire expands on a theme that began to take shape in its predecessor, An Artificial Night, and which will become increasingly important as the series goes on: the nature and desirability of heroism. In An Artificial Night, you’ll remember, Toby’s heroism was tantamount to a death wish, as she returned again and again into danger (in a fashion that ultimately became quite annoying) in order to slay the immensely powerful Blind Michael. Late Eclipses sees the consequences of that deed catching up with her, as the mercurial Queen of the Mists puts Toby on trial for the murder of a Firstborn, a crime that carries a death sentence. At the same time, her friends and allies, powerful members of the fae, are being poisoned by a villain with the ability to shape Toby’s thoughts, once again raising the spectre of the madness to which changelings and others with mixed fae heritage are supposedly subject. Can a Toby no longer in control of her own mind be trusted? And can she escape the Queen of the Mist’s persecution?

Interestingly, I think both of these questions are in their different ways approaching an issue that’s more often explored in modern superhero narratives: to what extent should heroic behaviour be subject to external scrutiny? The text takes it for granted, for instance, that Toby should be let off killing Blind Michael because he was a sadistic monster who refused to stop kidnapping and effectively mutilating children. And while it’s possible – in fact I think quite uncontroversial – that Toby’s act was justified, and it’s flagrantly obvious that the Queen’s motivations for trying Toby are political rather than born out of a desire to serve justice, it’s interesting that McGuire’s focus remains on the Queen’s unfairness in bringing the trial at all rather than the fact that the trial is a sham. Toby is eventually exonerated through something of a legal technicality, but there’s still the suggestion that as a heroic figure she’s granted the latitude to operate outside the normal rules of Faerie – in the same way that her changeling status makes her an outsider to fae high society.

The question of whether Toby’s mind is her own, and the ever-present threat of madness that lies behind her actions, is I think the flipside to this privileged outsider status, madness and mental illness having been used throughout literature and history conceptually to neutralise those who would not or could not conform to social norms. So McGuire is using the threat of madness to index the potential vulnerability of fae society to someone who is allowed to operate outside fae laws as Toby is: she has the power to wreak great destruction on that society as well as to save it. Or, to put it more simply, her heroism is a danger as well as a help.

As I’ve said, these are all concepts that have been explored before in the context of the superhero genre, and while it’s interesting to see them used in an urban fantasy text I’m not sure that McGuire is doing anything new with them. Late Eclipses is also, for my money, the least interesting and distinctive novel of the series so far, replacing the folkloric resonance that differentiates the first three novels from the vast majority of urban fantasy with what are ultimately some rather mundane political manoeuvrings. It remains, nevertheless, a pleasant enough filler read, and I’m looking forward to thinking about how McGuire’s depiction of heroism evolves as the series continues.

Review: Fragile Things

Fragile ThingsNeil Gaiman needs little introduction: easily one of the bestselling and best-known SFF authors out there, he’s responsible for lucrative media properties including comic book series The Sandman, the novels Good Omens (with Terry Pratchett) and American Gods, the TV adaptations of which have strong fan followings, as well as Stardust and Coraline, which have been turned into beloved feature films. He is, in short, a major voice in the field, commercially if not aesthetically; as an author who’s won numerous genre awards, he’s a good indicator of what kind of work the core genre community consistently rewards.

His 2006 collection of “Short Fictions and Wonders” Fragile Things contains 28 short stories and poems written between 1997 and 2006, four of which are Locus and Hugo award-winners; the collection as a whole won a British Fantasy Award and a Locus award in 2007. I emphasise this because, appropriately given the book’s title (although not in the way I suspect Gaiman intended it), almost every piece in Fragile Things feels slight, insubstantial, unmemorable; nothing here, to me, is remotely award-worthy.

Take those four winning stories. First up, “A Study in Emerald”, voted Locus Best Novelette in 2004, a Lovecraft/Sherlock Holmes mashup in which the monarchs of Europe are Great Old Ones. It’s one of the better stories of the collection, I’d say, but one that never rises beyond pastiche: certainly it never approaches the atmosphere of gibbering horror that lies just beneath the surface of Lovecraft’s excessive purple prose.

The same is true of “Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Nameless House of the Night of Dread Desire”, a Locus Best Short Story winner whose premise is so utterly facile that I am actively annoyed by it. The story’s protagonist lives in a Gothic mansion where melodramatic happenings such as shrieking ghosts, swordfights with estranged family members and ravens cawing “Nevermore!” are all commonplace occurrences; he finds escapism in writing what we would consider literary realism, which to him is fluffy fantasy. That’s it. That’s the story. It’s what I think of as a “punchline story”: a piece that’s structurally identical to a joke, in that it’s constructed solely around a piece of wordplay or an unexpected inversion or a literalised metaphor, without having anything to say beyond “look how clever I am”.

“How to Talk to Girls at Parties”, another Locus Best Short Story winner, falls neatly into this category too. The teenage protagonist attends a house party where he meets two girls who are actually aliens – except, because he’s already expecting teenage girls in general to be unapproachable, sophisticated and generally Other, he doesn’t actually notice. There is, as several commentators have noted, some truth in the notion that when you are fourteen it can feel as though people of other genders might as well be from another planet: teenage me certainly felt that way about boys. The problem here is that, as with many “punchline stories”, it’s painfully obvious from very early on just how the piece will turn out; as soon as the narrator’s friend Vic says the fateful words “They’re just girls…They don’t come from another planet” there’s no need to read any further. The boys meet the aliens; then they leave, and forget about them. Again, that’s it; there’s nothing else going on here.

“Sunbird”, the final award-winning story in the collection (another Locus Best Short Story), is, like “A Study in Emerald”, a reasonably competent piece that nevertheless makes little impact. An Epicurean Club whose members have spent their lives in pursuit of ever rarer delicacies take the opportunity to sample a phoenix, but things don’t go entirely their way. There’s a nicely folkloric slant to the tale, a resonant bit of poetic irony, but the piece lacks the sharp edge of menace it needs to make it truly effective.

In fact true menace, or at the very least a sense of Gothic atmosphere, is what’s missing from most of the stories in this collection – a problem that renders horror stories like “The Flints of Memory Lane”, “Closing Time” and “Feeders and Eaters” little more than shaggy dog stories. Ephemera like “Strange Little Girls”, “My Life” and “Diseasemaker’s Croup”, written to accompany, respectively, a CD, a photograph and a book of fictional illnesses, do little to add to the weightiness of the collection; the same is true of Gaiman’s poetry, which is overly literal and none too euphonious.

The one piece that I think really properly works here is also the only one I’d read before: the novella The Monarch of the Glen, which takes place in the American Gods universe. That novel’s protagonist, Shadow, is hired to provide security to what is apparently a highly exclusive weekend of revelry in a remote manor house in Scotland – only to discover that the weekend is a cover for a sinister and ancient ritual. This story possesses the atmosphere of menace, the folkloric resonance, that the rest of the collection is missing; there’s a sense of dark forces lurking beneath the apparently mundane everyday, and Gaiman does a good job of mapping his modern protagonists onto the myths he’s working from. There’s also a layer of social commentary here, the revellers’ privilege and entitlement contrasted with the itinerant lifestyle Shadow (a Black man who has been in prison) leads.

Overall, though, this is not an impressive collection. It’s not so much that these stories are bad: they’re decently constructed and clearly expressed; the dialogue mostly feels natural and authentic; the prose is competent. They are, in short, professional efforts by an author who’s been in the game a long time. But that’s the very least one should be able to expect from someone who’s received so much praise and recognition from the community. The pieces collected in Fragile Things have no teeth, no substance; as texts that aim to unsettle, they pull their punches too often to stick in the memory. I’m sceptical, to say the least, that any of these stories were the best of their year.

Review: A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects

Catherynne M. Valente has been in the business of reworking and complicating pervasive cultural myths for some time – whether that’s uncovering cycles of abuse at the heart of classic fairytales as she does in Six-Gun Snow White, or criticising the treatment of women in superhero narratives in The Refrigerator Monologues. Her poetry collection A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects is a very early effort, published in 2008, after her breakthrough Orphan’s Tales duology but before most of her better-known novels. As its title suggests, it’s a book that deconstructs, and then reconstructs, well-known fairytales, myths and legends in surprising and revealing ways, often restoring agency to traditionally passive female characters, or inserting new female viewpoints where none previously existed.

Take, for example, the poem “The Descent of the Corn-Queen of the Mid-West”, which begins, “Hades is a place I know in Ohio…” It’s an unsettling update of the Hades and Persephone myth, in which the Persephone figure is a woman from modern-day America; the contrast it draws between bright, mundane modernity and the Greek classicism of Hades (“Ascaphalus talks shop with me/at the Farmer’s Market”) brings her displacement from the land of the living to the world of the dead into sharp focus. The dead’s refrain of “Don’t you know these are your fruits?/Don’t you know these are your flowers?” is a sinister and ever-present reminder of her inevitable fate – and, by extension, of our own mortality.

Scattered throughout the collection are little prose pieces, presented as descriptions of stories by a folklore researcher. What unites these tales is that they are all told by women or feature women prominently, and there are often esoteric traditions around their transmission: one is told only by youngest daughters, for example, and another is told by women to their prospective husbands, their reactions to the story indicating their suitability as partners. The effect is a sense of secrecy and power: these women have control of the narrative in a way that feels somewhat radical in our own patriarchal context.

Of course, the work that Valente is doing here is not particularly unusual: she’s following in the footsteps of authors like Angela Carter and, on the theoretical side, Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar. Valente’s command of voice and language, which is so noticeable in novels like Palimpsest and Radiance, has not yet developed fully here, and somehow the flowing poetry of her prose is actually less remarkable – less memorable – in actual poetic form. A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects has some worthwhile things to say, but it’s ultimately, I think, a minor work.

Review: An Artificial Night

This review contains spoilers.

An Artificial NightThe third novel in Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, An Artificial Night is I think the first to retool recognisable folkloric intertexts, rather than simply refer to mythological concepts and fairytale tropes. Tam Lin and the Wild Hunt are both in evidence here, as half-fae PI Toby is called on to rescue missing fae and human children from the fearsome Blind Michael and his Ride, which transforms its victims in terrifying ways.

At the most basic level, Blind Michael and his Ride, like their folkloric counterparts the Wild Hunt, represent the wild wood, the untameable forest, all that is dark and unknowable about nature; if we wanted to get Lacanian about it, we could describe the periodic return of the Ride as an unavoidable irruption of the Real into the life of Faerie, which, with its emphasis on arcane rules, promises and rituals is highly Symbolic. Named explicitly as a hero multiple times in the text, Toby becomes in this novel a guardian of the Symbolic order and of the fae culture that stands in opposition to the wild forces of nature. (This contrast between nature and culture, Real and Symbolic, is of course a deeply familiar one in Western literature: it’s there in almost every fairy and folk tale, including Tam Lin itself.)

But, as the only character in An Artificial Night who passes regularly between our world and that of Blind Michael, Toby is also a liminal, in-between figure, and we can see this playing out in other aspects of her characterisation too. She’s a changeling, half-human and half-fae, an in-between status that pureblood fae see as dangerous, an indicator of future madness, as we saw in the previous novel A Local Habitation. She’s also someone to whom the normal laws of Faerie don’t quite seem to apply: she’s friends with the sea-witch the Luidaeg, who terrifies most of Faerie’s other inhabitants; when we first met her in Rosemary and Rue, she was choosing to live as a human, ignoring, to some extent, the conventions of alliegance that govern Faerie. In An Artificial Night, moreover, she’s also revealed as someone who hovers between life and death, thanks to a death wish manifesting as a hero complex.

This liminality enables McGuire to explore the contradictions inherent in Toby’s psyche, and thus by way of identification that of the reader. Toby’s heroism, as we have seen, makes her a representative of order and of culture; but her potential madness and her death wish are reflections of something darker; they show her affinity with Blind Michael’s nonsense-realm, ruled by the logic of children’s rhymes, expressions of the blind forces of nature and of the Real. (To enter Blind Michael’s realm, Toby is turned into a child, perhaps representing a return to the Lacanian stage of development that precedes the Symbolic.) Her destruction of Blind Michael, then, represents her overcoming those forces within herself, and her re-identification with the Symbolic order.

This isn’t exactly groundbreaking, as a textual strategy; as I’ve said, you can find similar story-structures in pretty much every Western fairytale. But, perhaps paradoxically, that’s what makes it work: McGuire’s identified what makes these intensely familiar (to Western readers) stories tick, and transported them into a modern milieu, with a nicely conflicted New Adult-ish heroine; the result is vastly more resonant than a lot of fairytale retellings and urban fantasy (Sookie Stackhouse, I’m looking at you). It’s not going to set the world on fire, or inspire new insights into the human condition; and Toby’s hero complex can be downright annoying, as when she returns to Blind Michael’s realm after being dramatically rescued from that very place by a phalanx of devoted friends. But it is, on the whole, very readable. I’d happily read it again, even.

Review: A Local Habitation

This review contains spoilers.

A Local HabitationMurder mystery and techno-gothic are odd bedfellows, as are fairies and computers, but Seanan McGuire achieves an interesting synthesis in A Local Habitation. This, the second novel in her immensely popular urban fantasy series following the half-human, half-fae PI October “Toby” Daye, sees our protagonist sent by her liege Sylvester to the fae County of Tamed Lightning to check up on Sylvester’s niece January, who’s been out of contact for a couple of months. January’s outfit turns out to be a tech company where people are dying in mysterious ways; they’ve been keeping it quiet so as not to draw the attention of local fiefdoms who’d be more than happy to move in on a struggling independent County. Now Toby’s on the scene, it’s up to her to find out who’s behind the murders before the situation gets substantially worse.

With a steadily mounting body count and a closed circle of suspects, A Local Habitation is in some senses as classical a murder mystery as it gets. Its structuring principle, like that of all murder mystery, is about restoring order by closing down violent, irrational tendencies within the County of Tamed Lightning. McGuire adapts this template to the speculative genre she’s writing in by making those irrational tendencies quintessentially Gothic ones: her murderers are a changeling succumbing to the madness that threatens everyone with half-human, half-fae blood, and a kind of fae cyborg, a dryad whose consciousness was transferred into Tamed Lightning’s mainframe when her tree was cut down. These two Gothic figures are working on a scheme to upload fae minds and thereby preserve fae culture against the encroachment of humanity and the disenchantment of the world – that is, to create a ghostly, Gothic simulacrum of Faerie.

How does the murder mystery structure work to close down the anxieties induced by these figures – anxieties around madness and the threat that technology poses to personhood? This is where it gets interesting. Gordan, the changeling, may end the novel dead; her obsessive, single-minded focus on her goal is no longer a threat. But the spectre of her madness still troubles the novel’s world: Toby is a changeling too, and Gordan’s actions put her under suspicion. The way McGuire handles technology in the context of Faerie is also fascinating: it’s not Gordan’s plot itself that’s dangerous, but the fact that she’s willing to kill people to perfect the technology. Her accomplice, April, revealed as a sympathetic character who didn’t realise the people Gordan was killing couldn’t be rebooted, is reinscribed into the social order at the end of the novel by becoming Countess of Tamed Lightning – presumably free to continue Gordan’s work in a less homicidal manner. The threat of technology, unlike the threat of madness, is tamed here, brought into Faerie’s service.

It’s a shame that this doesn’t look set to be further examined in later books: I feel like there’s a lot of potential to be exploited in the tension between technology and magic (which is only an extension of the tension that powers all urban fantasy) and the paradox inherent in using human technology to combat problems caused by humans, and McGuire only really touches on this tension in A Local Habitation. It is, nevertheless, well-handled here: one of the things that elevates the Toby Daye series above most urban fantasy is the relative complexity of McGuire’s constructed world, the way she takes existing mythology and spins it into something both unexpected and completely consistent with her sources. Having fae who are comfortable with technology – comfortable enough to merge with it – feels counterintuitive, paradoxical; but it demonstrates a measure of flexibility and diversity among the fae as a whole that accounts for their survival into the modern age, in McGuire’s mythos. That I’d like to see a little more of this intersection between technology and magic isn’t a bad thing – it’s just an indication of how well it works here.