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Book Review: Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire

A flock of pixies was circling the display produce near the side door, flitting in wide circles as their sentries watched for signs of danger. Dressed in scraps of cloth and bits of discarded paper and armed with toothpicks and sandwich-spears, they looked ready to go to war over a few grapes and an overripe pear…. I don’t care much for pixies as a rule. They’re pretty but savage, and they’ll attack if you provoke them. Maybe that doesn’t sound like much of a threat, considering that the average pixie is about four inches tall and weighs three ounces soaking wet. They’re like mice with wings and thumbs, except for the part where mice don’t usually come armed with knives carved from broken beer bottles and homemade spears that may have been dipped in equally homemade poisons. At the same time, I had to admire the way they’d adapted. They had an entire community thriving inside this downtown grocery store, and nobody knew about it but me. (Rosemary & Rue, pages 15-16)

After the review I gave to Seanan McGuire/Mira Grant’s last book, Parasite, I thought I owed her a slightly more favorable one. When I first found out that the author of the Newsflesh series had written another set of books under her own name, I was intrigued; when I found out they were urban fantasy, I became skeptical. Maybe it’s the particular slice of the genre I’ve been exposed to, but in my mind “urban fantasy” is often synonymous with “paranormal romance” (half-demon girl chasing werewolf guy through New York, for instance) and I’m not such a fan of romance novels. After reading some reviews, though, and realizing that McGuire’s urban fantasy heroine is more private detective than romantic lead, I decided to give this one a try.

The October Daye books, of which there are seven as of the time this post went up, star (surprise!) October “Toby” Daye, a half-human half-fae woman (in the series, these people are labeled “changelings,” although I’ve not heard that term used in that particular context before) living in San Francisco in the more-or-less present. In this first volume, Toby is starting to pick up the pieces of her life after a little more than a decade out of it (she was enchanted; I’ll leave the details for the story to tell). Like many a new protagonist, she’s in a not-so-great place in her life, this time around caught in a crummy job and a mediocre apartment and the fact that she’s basically lost touch with family who thought she was dead. She’s trying to avoid entanglements with the fae world, but then the fae world comes to her, and she’s got her first PI case since her return: a murder.

I’m generally not a huge fan of whodonits, not least because they tend to be heavily serialized stories (I’ve resisted getting into Dresden Files for the same reason). Although I know that the best of these types of stories tend to have overarching plot along with the story-of-the-week, the way a good TV show does, I like seeing a little more change in my characters, and I like it when the story’s clearly building toward Something Big. All that is to say that I probably won’t be in a hurry to pick up the next one of these — but all the same, I enjoyed this book a lot.

It’s got all the elements I like from McGuire’s Newsfeed series: solid action sequences that don’t completely take over the story (I’m looking at you, Jim Butcher), witty and well-crafted dialogue, and careful worldbuilding. As the excerpt at the top suggests, McGuire takes her time bringing in the different types of fae, which I like. This book is as much an introduction to the world as to the characters, and it shows. As a Bay Area resident, of course, I also love the fact that it’s set in San Francisco; key scenes take place in Golden Gate Park and downtown, and I always enjoy always fun to be able to picture yourself running through the scenes. (Of course, a friend who’s read more of these books points out that when Toby gets to other cities around the East Bay, the author’s lack of familiarity starts to show, so caveat emptor in that regard). I liked the social stratification that was set up in the fae society, where changelings were unquestionably second-class citizens and that had ramifications; I liked the way that religion and other big-picture stuff were seeded in without being explicitly laid out for us. And I didn’t see the “who” in the “whodunit” coming, either, but that’s probably more to do with me than with exceptionally careful work on the author’s part.

I’ve been recommending this series to friends in the 3D world, and I’m going to do the same here. If you’re someone who likes urban fantasy, or detective stories, or clever worldbuilding involving the fae realm, check out the October Daye books. This first one is definitely worth a read.

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