I was in the mood for urban fantasy and just... pleasure reading. I decided to begin by hitting a few of the urban fantasy books sitting in my TBR and read a few, including the first two books from Patricia Briggs' Alpha & Omega series, but most notably, I inhaled the entire October (Toby) Daye urban fantasy series by Seanan McGuire. Yes, all seven books!
So what did I think of the series?
The first three books of the series, Rosemary and Rue #1 (B-), A Local Habitation #2 (C-), and An Artificial Night #3 (C+/B-) were not real winners for me. So you may wonder why I continued reading the series. Well, I fell in love with McGuire's world-building, particularly the fantasy side of things. Her Faerie world is fascinating with its changelings, multiple fae races, nobles and Courts, and of course the Court of Cats. I particularly like McGuire's take on how they all interrelate with each other, the history details, and all the political ins and outs that develop throughout the series.
I also fell in love with the detailed and clear magical elements in this series. McGuire's takes her time developing this aspect of her world. Magic works and is used differently depending on the fae's race, mixture of pureblood race, and for changelings -- the half-human, half-fae -- it all depends the fae parent's blood. Power and magic really comes down to blood. Humans don't necessarily play a big role in this series, however, the fae have no choice but to make use of their physical world and I like how magic is used in this symbiotic relationship. San Francisco is a fantastic setting. My fascination with the world-building kept me reading Rosemary and Rue and beyond because frankly, I was not necessarily taken with other aspects of this series until I reached the fourth book.
Initially, one of my problems was Toby, the narrator and main character, who is not impressive in the first book as the "hero." Toby is a changeling with little magical power of her own, but earned her place as knight errant to Sylvester Torquill, Duke of Shadowed Hills, making Toby special/unique among the changelings and purebloods. Her story begins when Toby is turned into a fish, a Koi to be exact, while in Sylvester's service. Toby spends fourteen years swimming in a pond until she breaks the spell and realizes that her whole life as she knew it is lost, including her human live-in boyfriend and daughter Gillian. This loss plunges Toby into a depressive spiral until a friend binds and compels Toby to find a murderer or die trying. Toby's life slowly gets back on track as she picks up the threads of her life as a P.I. and begins the process of bonding with people who eventually become her closest allies.
The highest praise I can give Toby's character is that although she is half-human, McGuire imbues her with a humanity and vulnerability that is sorely missing from many of the characters encountered in this series, including changelings. She has a big heart and because she is a "hero," bravery. However, Toby's bravery is often the foolish kind -- she is universally known for taking stupid, uncalled-for risks. There are other aspects of her personality that tend to annoy. For example, Toby tends to blame herself for events that are not her fault. She's a guilt-ridden hero. Me thinks she's a bit self-deluded in that respect, but then she has a huge hero-complex which makes her both self-sacrificing and self-centered in my opinion.
See, initially, Toby doesn't think much of herself and believes she's a waste of space. Later on confidence comes with power and gained affection, but too often she is willing to let herself go if necessary because there always seems to be a small part of her that feels she doesn't deserve to live -- that she is not good enough or doesn't deserve better. Talk about poor self-esteem! If you understand that about her, it goes a long way toward understanding Toby's choices -- including her choice in men. This drove me a bit insane during the first three books as did her lack of insight, follow through and investigative skills. Toby also tends to be oblivious to important comments or clues, and other times she chooses to be oblivious to the obvious. But okay... Toby was a fish for fourteen years, her emotional state was severely compromised for a while, and she has huge mommy issues (and I'm talking about Toby's mother here, not her daughter. That's another kettle of fish altogether).
In this respect, Toby is no different from other urban fantasy "heroines" who throw themselves in the fray over and over again and are willing to sacrifice themselves to save the world because they believe they are the only ones equipped to do so. Initially where she differs is in the fact that she has little power throws herself heart and soul into the battles anyway. Later on in the series she falls in line with other urban fantasy heroines. What doesn't change is the fact that Toby wants to be a 'hero' and believes her own press (she contradicts herself about this though), or the fact that she's not a great investigator, in fact most of the time she stumbles along until things fall into place, has problems following through and "listening to others." Toby's usually too busy looking for the next bit of trouble to really take the time to listen and analyze information. She doesn't pay attention. Thank goodness for her allies.
And that's the thing, the secondary characters in this series kick some serious ass! I'm not talking physically now... I mean whatever flaws I found when focusing on Toby were placed aside when McGuire began building those excellent relationships between her protagonist and the key secondary characters. It is a slow development, but every single one of these characters and relationships are worth the page time. What would Toby do without Quentin, Tybalt, or her fascinating frenemy the Luidaeg. There are so many more!
Toby? Toby grew on me. By the time I read Late Eclipses #4 (B) I was hooked and thrilled to finally see significant revelations about Toby come to light, and by One Salt Sea #5 (B+) I was laughing my ass off as Toby hopped on a mermaid's lap, riding a wheelchair down a San Francisco hill to save her life -- an absurd and memorable scene, and a very good read! And yes, Ashes of Honor #6 ( A-) was an absolute winner for me just as it was for many other readers. There is an obvious reason behind that, but also in this book Toby finally takes the time to look inwards, gains some insight into herself and admits some hard truths. Self-awareness never hurt anyone, and Toby needed a good dose of that! Chimes at Midnight,#7 (B-) wasn't a great read for me, but it made me think hard about this series. Am I still hooked? Hmm..., I will read the next book to see where McGuire takes it.
Additional Thoughts after reading Chimes at Midnight: McGuire's Toby is a changeling of mixed blood -- half-human, half-fae. In her world, changelings are forced to make the choice to become one or the other. Socially, they are also at the bottom of the ladder and are often disregarded by the upper classes -- the pureblood fae. The issue of blood, the mixtures of blood, and/or choosing who you are because of your blood becomes a central theme in McGuire's series. In many instances, choosing to be both means having little power. Choosing to change your blood to become a pureblood means more power and becoming human means next to none. In thinking about this central theme in a contemporary context (something I tend to do when I read fantasy and sci-fi), the whole idea became utterly disturbing.