Being a detective isn’t easy. It’s made even harder when your client, before her death, binds you in a spell that will kill you if you don’t catch her killer in time. When you’ve been out of practice for more than fourteen years, due to a different spell that cut you off from everyone you knew, that task is even more daunting.
In case it’s not obvious, October Daye hasn’t had an easy life.
Rosemary and Rue, by Seanan McGuire, begins with October Daye, a half-human, half-fairy woman who is leading a double life of sorts. She works as a private detective and has a boyfriend and small daughter, and overall can pass as a fully human woman, though her fairy blood allows her to perceive and use small charms that are quite helpful in her detective work. When the story opens, she’s tailing a suspect in the disappearance of her liege lord’s wife and daughter, a powerful fairy related to her liege lord. It appears to be going well- until she catches him and finds that he had known she was following him all along. And to keep her from any further interference- he turns her into a fish.
It’s somehow more disturbing than it sounds.
Either way, October’s life is permanently altered by what happened. When the spell finally breaks, she finds her family lost to her. Furious with her fairy heritage that caused her to lose so much, she retreats and lives in solitude, moving from job to job and keeping herself as removed as possible from the fairy world. She doesn’t always succeed in keeping it at bay, but for the most part, she can keep herself at a distance- until a powerful fairy who knew October and helped her get back on her feet is murdered. Before her death, that fairy, Evening Winterrose, demands that October find her killer, placing a binding spell on her before dying. The spell forces October to find out who killed Evening, or face her own death (due to her half-fairy blood, she cannot take the force of the binding Evening laid on her without a great deal of pain). She soon discovers that finding Evening’s killer will necessitate a plunge back into the fairy realm- and re-forging connections that she would sooner have forgotten
I’ll get this out of the way right now- Toby is not a very good detective, nor is this story a very good mystery. The clues and the discovery of suspects aren’t well-crafted, and don’t do much to get the reader closer to the answer of who the murderer is. There are the trappings of detective work, but they don’t actually do much that’s productive to the plot. Since I’ve been reading mysteries since I was about 12 or so, it was frustrating seeing Toby make some basic mistakes such as neglecting to talk to key suspects and failing to put together various factors like knowledge and alibis for the crime.
But what is great about this story, what kept me reading, and what will get me to buy the next book as soon as I have time and money, is the setting. It’s wonderful. This version of San Francisco is gritty, haunting, and has magic lurking at every corner. Kelpies, rose goblins, and charmed portals pop up at every turn. The rituals and etiquette that Toby has to follow in navigating the fairy court is fascinating, both as a means of teasing out how fairies live in this world, as well as shedding light on the various characters as they navigate- or flaunt- this system. And one of my pet peeves with a lot of urban fantasy is that many times I don’t get much of a sense of setting and its impact. Here the setting and the world were so vivid they were practically tangible- and were integral to lending meaning to the plot and the struggles the characters went through.
As for the characters, they were surprisingly well-rounded and engaging, though of course the one I liked best died. Toby is interesting, even though she’s occasionally frustrating, and if I had to pick one quote to sum her up, it would be this:
“I may regret my promises, but I keep them.”
That tells so much both about her and the way she saw the world, and it painted many of her actions in the story in a much more understandable light. And it lent an insight into her moral code that I found refreshing- it tells a lot while saying little, and made me very excited to read more about Toby as she begins to find her way back into the fairy world.
Because without spoilers, suffice to say that after the events in this novel, I think it will be much harder for Toby to stay away from the magic that’s caused her so much heartache and chaos. I’m curious to see what she makes of this- and if she can grow, both as a detective and a character, in the face of it.