Saturday, May 22, 2010

High-Tech Magical Hijinks

If Seanan McGuire’s first October Daye novel (Rosemary and Rue) was her spin on a moody, atmospheric, noir-style mystery (set in an uber-cool world populated by the Fae, Changelings, and regular humans), then her follow-up novel, A Local Habitation, goes the modern, high-tech crime thriller route (albeit with the same Fae and human mishmash of characters). And once again, she’s managed to create something quite magical.
The differences between the two stories--and the two approaches--are striking. It fell to R&R, the first of the series, to set up the whole world--introducing us to the characters, their environment, some background, and all the lore. We first glimpsed lands of unimaginable beauty and thrilling magic, as we viewed various kingdoms and duchies of the Summerlands through Toby’s eyes. We learned how the Fae interact not only with each other, but also with the Changelings (whom they see as sort of second-class citizens) and the humans (whom they suffer as well as fear). It was a fascinating introduction. 
Most importantly, though, we got to know Toby. We saw the overall contentment early on in the story--her having a (mostly) happy family and a (mostly) satisfying job, being a (mostly) well-adjusted adult woman, who had (mostly) worked out her place in the world (or worlds, as she actually inhabits two separate ones). But then, we saw it all come crashing down around her. In the blink of an eye--which proceeded to last more than fourteen years--her world slipped away, a piece at a time. Everything she’d once held dear was gone by the time she finally returned from captivity; she was back, but there was nothing left to come back to. And so, it fell to her to try to piece the scraps back together as she found them. Gradually, she came to terms with her Fae friends again, and resumed her old job. Her human family never did return to her, however, preferring to distance themselves from the woman who had seemingly left them high-and-dry so long ago. Toby was a changed woman. Her gaiety and zest for life were gone; she was bitter, sad, and hurting. (Some people have criticized this depiction of Toby’s grief as too “down”; for me, her depression seemed just right. She should find it hard, and painful, to get past such a horrific event and the aftermath which followed. Downplaying her emotions would have negated much of the impact, and I’m glad McGuire didn’t go for the “softened” approach here; a more visceral approach to emotional anguish is far easier to understand.) Of course, by the end of R&R, we got a sense that there was light at the end of Toby’s tunnel; she’d had to rely on her friends (and even some enemies) to help her make it through, and they hadn’t let her down.
So, ALH has a very different feel from the first book, picking up about six months after the events of R&R. Toby’s family still doesn’t want anything to do with her, but she has renewed all her old friendships, which continue to flourish. She’s even made some new (and, let’s just say, surprising) friends in the interim, providing her with unexpected (but much-appreciated) pleasures. She has her old P.I. job back (and it’s going strong), and her relationship with her liege (Duke Torquill) is healthy, as well. Overall, she’s in a much happier place, now--and we believe it, after having seen her go through all the events of the first book. (Toby is a woman on a journey. Now, admittedly, the same may be said of the heroines of a lot of other UF books, too. This is one time, though, that I totally buy into it; I believe Toby’s story and her reactions to all the turmoil she’s gone through, and the changes which have been wrought just feel right--not forced for effect, but right.)
Of course, Toby’s life doesn’t exactly revolve around her mental and emotional status; her job typically supersedes everything else (just like in real life), and in ALH she finds herself being sent on a personal mission by Sylvester Torquill: to find his missing niece, who lives in a nearby territory (the independent County of Tamed Lightning, aka Fremont, California). Not expecting it to be a particularly-dangerous assignment, he sends only his teenaged page to assist Toby. Sure, there are some minor political “issues” with the next kingdom over (which would dearly love to get its hands back on Tamed Lightning), but the AWOL-niece, Countess January O’Leary, owns a software gaming company; how hard can it be??
Well, things can be pretty darn complicated, actually. Once Toby and Quentin-the-page finally find the company (note: never have a Fae give directions to the human world--just don’t), they don’t know what to think. The company, housed in a couple of huge warehouses, seems to be nearly deserted... but the few remaining employees are all Fae, and none of them will give Toby and Quentin any straight answers. After several hours of not getting anywhere--and getting lost, in the building which is actually a knowe, or entrance, into the Summerlands--Toby is fed up and determined to force some information out of someone. 
She soon discovers, however, that the employees have a very good reason for all the secrecy and game-playing; a couple of them have recently been murdered on premises, and no one has a clue as to the who, what, or why of it (understandably leaving the remaining staff scared senseless). January, who has been ensconced at company HQ all along, is likewise baffled by Toby’s insistence that Sylvester has been worried sick about her; she tells Toby that she has been calling him the same as always... but that no one from the Duke’s land has returned any of her messages. 
Further complications arise. The political issues may be dicier than originally thought. The company, which makes some very high-tech items specifically for Fae usage, is having difficulty ironing out a few problems. Internally, there is a certain degree of rivalry and possibly, distrust. And worst of all, the death toll continues to rise as more people are attacked and left for dead. 
With some help from her friends--Connor, Sylvester’s son-in-law (and foolishly, Toby’s would-be lover), and Tybalt, the King of Cats (and constant thorn--or maybe, claw?--in Toby’s side)--Toby is, eventually, able to unwind the complicated tangle of clues. It comes at a price, though--more loss, sadness, and considerable physical danger to everyone involved. Once again, I didn’t quite see the big reveal coming; even after I’d figured out who must be behind everything, I didn’t cotton onto the why of it. 

McGuire has succeeded in fashioning yet another brilliantly-inventive, twisty tale. She’s given me characters I genuinely care about and a world I’m fascinated with; I can hardly wait to see how those characters and that world interact and change and grow as time passes. Far from being a stagnant place which lives only on the printed page, McGuire’s creation now runs freely through my imagination... and I’m more than happy to let it do so, for as long as she writes such compelling and beautiful stories.
GlamKitty rating: 4.5 catnip mice (out of 5 possible)

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