Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – September 1, 2009

Summary: October “Toby” Daye, a changeling who is half human and half fae, has been an outsider from birth. After getting burned by both sides of her heritage, Toby has denied the Faerie world, retreating to a “normal” life. Unfortunately for her, the Faerie world has other ideas…

The murder of Countess Evening Winterrose pulls Toby back into the fae world. Unable to resist Evening’s dying curse, which binds her to investigate, Toby must resume her former position as knight errant and renew old alliances. As she steps back into fae society, dealing with a cast of characters not entirely good or evil, she realizes that more than her own life will be forfeited if she cannot find Evening’s killer.

Thoughts: I’d heard good things about Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series for years now, but I’m so rarely in the mood for urban fantasy that starting what I knew to be a long-running series seemed too daunting. When the mood struck me again and a copy of the first book in the series was available at the library, I thought to myself, “Why not?” At worst, I would read the book and dislike it and not have to worry about continuing the series. At best, I would find something new and fun to read that I could keep visiting over and over again with the many different novels that make up the whole story.

Unsurprisingly, I now must lament that the library only has this book, and none of the others, and so I must begin the process of tracking them all down one by one.

I’m used to thinking of urban fantasy series with female protagonists as being rather formulaic. Mid-20s attractive woman and martial arts skills must thwart growing supernatural menace and date hot supernatural guys. I know that stereotype is something of an injustice to the genre, especially these days, but that was the bulk of urban fantasy I saw growing up, and so it’s a surprise to me (and yet it shouldn’t be) when I encounter something that bucks those trends and gives me something I didn’t expect.

Much of Rosemary and Rue could have been written with a protagonist like that, I suspect, but that this wasn’t the case caught my attention immediately. October “Toby” Daye was born in 1952, though in fairness she’s part faerie and also spent 14 years living as a fish in a koi pond, so her appearance doesn’t make her true age immediately obvious. She has a husband and child, though thanks to the aforementioned fish pond captivity, they’re not part of her life to the degree they used to be. She knows how to fight, how to defend herself, because she was a trained private investigator. And unlike the first books of many urban fantasy series I’ve read, she doesn’t begin the multi-novel journey in ignorance of the supernatural forces around her. She knows what she is, she knows what lurks in the shadows and in the danger of the sunrise, and she has experience dealing with a variety of things both mundane and otherworldly. She’s competent, experienced, and resourceful, and it was refreshing to see.

The bulk of the novel is a supernatural murder mystery, after a fae Countess is brutally killed and her last words are to bind and compel Toby to solve the matter of who killed her and why. The binding places something of a time constraint on Toby, not in a strict “you have 48 hours to figure this out” way, but by actively hurting her if she’s taking too long to find clues and follow the trail. Which is honestly a bit difficult to wrap my head around, when it comes right down to it, because there’s the implication that the spell knows the answer to the puzzle, at least on some level, since it eases up on Toby when she’s getting closer to the truth, and squeezes tighter when she’s taking too long. The magic itself seems to have awareness of the truth. I can’t say it’s based on Toby’s motivations or actions, not entirely, as there are times when Toby is getting close to something but the situation isn’t much different from times when Toby thought she was getting close to something but it was more of a false lead. Could Toby have escaped the binding by just blaming somebody who seemed likely to kill Countess Winterrose, even if there was no definitive proof but plenty of circumstantial evidence? If somebody falsely confessed, would the binding know that the mystery wasn’t solved, even if Toby believed it was? Could the binding be unraveled to just lead right to the truth of the matter?

Am I reading too much into this?

Probably. But I enjoy asking questions like this. I enjoy looking at possibilities and trying to figure out how magic systems in books work, seeing where the holes are and trying to reconcile them with what’s presented to me. Sometimes there’s no satisfactory answer. Sometimes the answer is, “It just works. It’s a mystical thing and human minds can’t fully grasp it, but it works, and that’s all you need to know.”

It’s also very possible that anything I see now as an ambiguity will be addressed in later novels, as the October Daye series currently has 13 novels and a few side stories. There’s plenty of time to see how this all unfolds.

It’s the backdrop of faerie lore that makes Rosemary and Rue more than just a typical murder mystery. The binding curse on Toby definitely propels things forward, making sure that there isn’t much downtime in the story. But people also know that Toby is on the case, including the murderer she’s seeking, and so traps and obstacles come her way. Up to and including people sent to kill her, to stop her from finding out the truth. There’s more to it than just Winterrose’s death. There’s also an item of legend thrown into the mix, a box that reportedly contains great powers, that Toby must protect and that other people want to get their hands on. The balance between Toby needing to stay safe (which rarely happens) and to rush into danger so that her quest can be finished and the binding removed causes the story to always be moving forward, but at something of an unsteady pace. None of it slows down the story to the point where it feels stuck, however, which is a testament to the author’s ability to tell a good story.

I love the complicated world of the fae. Political lines drawn and shifting, and there are complex rules to follow that aren’t always apparent. The different kinds of supernatural beings all seem connected to the fae even if they’re not quite what I’d typically think of as faerie, such as trolls or kitsune, but I can still see how they could be considered under a similar umbrella, so to speak. The author certain did a decent amount of research when figuring out the way a lot of these groups would fit together and relate to each other, both politically and in terms of lifestyle, and it all comes together quite nicely and feels coherent, if complex.

Even if I disagree with some aspects of the pronunciation guide at the front of the book… (Kitsune is not pronounced kit-soon. Sorry.)

As I said previously, I quite enjoyed my experience reading Rosemary and Rue, and I’m inspired to continue following Toby Daye’s adventures and misadventures through the rest of the series. I don’t know how quickly I’ll be able to actually do that, since finding them might involve a lot of luck and interlibrary loans, but I certainly want to read them and to see where the story leads in the end. Seanan McGuire is a skilled writer who can balance enjoyable fluff with serious considerations, and while Rosemary and Rue leaned a little more heavily to the side of enjoyable fluff (at least, that’s my interpretation), it did dip its toes in darker waters at times, turning from witty and quick to grim and brutal in a matter of pages, and I liked the effect. Sure as if there’s now a binding on me, I’m compelled to read on!

One comment on “Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire

  1. Pingback: January 2020 in Retrospect | Bibliotropic

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