Urban Fairy Thriller: Seanan McGuire – Rosemary and Rue

I am not a fan of Seanan McGuire’s fiction. But I really like her as a person – in the SF Squeecast podcast, in interviews, whenever I read her non-fiction – and so it was hard for me to see that this cool, funny person has written books that I considered – sorry –  utter crap (two of the three Wayward Children novellas, the third one was actually quite good). So I came to this book with negative expectations. I was worried I would encounter the same one-dimensional characters and lack of plot. Thank the gods of literature I was wrong. So very, very wrong in fact that I’m actually looking forward to reading the rest of this series.

ROSEMARY AND RUE
by Seanan McGuire

Published by: DAW, 2009
Ebook: 368 pages
Series: October Daye #1
My rating: 7/10

First sentence: The phone was ringing.

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.

I went into this book knowing only the very basics. Toby Daye, half-fairy or something, and private detective investigates case. Which was really good because when I read the first chapter, the twist at the end blew me away! Within just the first few pages, McGuire delivers an emotional punch to the guts that set the tone for the rest of the reading experience for me. I suddenly liked this book, even though the story hadn’t even started. And because I want you guys to have that same fantastic experience, I will not tell you what this initial plot twist is.

The actual story begins when Countess Evening Winterrose – a pretty important fae – is brutally killed, hiring Toby with her last words to figure out her murder case. Now Toby has been absent from the world of Faerie for a long time and doesn’t really want to go back but promises and bindings are important things and she has no choice but to investigate this murder and figure out what is going on. She meets old acquaintances – both the friend and the enemy kind -, meets new people, and almost reaches the end of her powers. I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that the case is resolved in the end, because there are many more questions left open and much of the world to discover yet.

What I liked about this book first and foremost was Toby herself. That girl has been through hell and is just trying to survive. And people just don’t want to let her. Whether it’s the case that sends her to places and people who take an emotional toll on her, or rather plain attempts on Toby’s life, she just can’t catch a break! I felt for her, I really did, even though there isn’t much that separates her from the other Urban Fantasy heroines I’ve read about. But that one thing from the beginning does separate her and I just happened to like her personality. She’s not the average sassy, sexy, monster-slaying bad-ass. She may be a changeling (a half-fae) but other than that, she’s just a woman trying to get by in life. That includes feeding the cats and paying the bills.

The other thing I really enjoyed and that will probably keep me reading a lot more of this series is the world building. I love mythology and fairy tales, so many of the terms in this particular Faerie world weren’t new to me, but I really liked how McGuire interwove everything and gave certain mythological beings different powers. The fae themselves are separated into different sub-spieces, if you like, and they all come with different abilities. Changelings have weaker powers and, depending on their parentage, their magic also manifests in different ways. There are kelpies and goblins (I loved the rose goblins so much, I want one of my own!), there are Undine and Sidhe, and there is something called the Court of Cats with the aptly named Tybalt as their leader.

Speaking of Tybald, and the male characters in general, I was worried for a while that there would be a romance sub-plot in this story because it’s Urban Fantasy and the dreaded love triangle seems to be a staple of that genre. While Toby doesn’t live in celibacy, I wouldn’t call this a romance. At all. There was a very obvious hint at a potential romance to come in later books but I hope it goes another way. I was a little surprised myself but I’m quite partial to Tybalt. 🙂

Now the plot was at the same time the weaker element of this story and one of its strengths. Let me explain. I thought Toby ran around pretty aimlessly for a long time, talking to people who might have information on her case, visiting places that may give her something to go on, and that’s dandy and all, but it never felt like we got any closer to the resolution. However, the last third of the book, maybe even the entire second half, was so filled with action that it became impossible to put it down. I don’t know how many times I thought “just one more chapter, and then I’ll go to sleep” but I ended up finishing the book. Because if Toby had it hard before, in the second half of the book she really doesn’t get a moment’s peace. It was so much fun to read, with something thrilling happening in every chapter, an attempt on Toby’s life, a big revelation, a character betrayal, you name it.

This felt very much like the beginning of a series, with its own plot, but with many more plot lines that have only just been set up. I’m sure some of the favors Toby called in, some of the promises she’s made, will come back to bite her in the ass later and all you long-time fans will probably giggle to yourselves right now because you already know. I can’t judge the series based on only this book, but I was positively surprised and will definitely continue reading.

MY RATING: 7/10 – Very good

Seanan McGuire – Every Heart a Doorway

This is a severe case of over-hyped book. Tor.com had been advertising this book for months, it is the only one of the novellas to come out in hardcover as well as paperback and e-book, and that does send a clear message to readers. It has Seanan McGuire’s name on it, so it must be a hit. Except even a writer with a fanbase as large as McGuires can write something bad every once in a while.

every heart a doorway

EVERY HEART A DOORWAY
by Seanan McGuire

Published by: Tor.com, 2016
Ebook: 176 pages
Series: Every Heart a Doorway #1
My rating: 3,5/10

First sentence: The girls were never present for the entrance interviews.

Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children
No Solicitations
No Visitors
No Quests

Children have always disappeared under the right conditions; slipping through the shadows under a bed or at the back of a wardrobe, tumbling down rabbit holes and into old wells, and emerging somewhere… else.
But magical lands have little need for used-up miracle children.
Nancy tumbled once, but now she’s back. The things she’s experienced… they change a person. The children under Miss West’s care understand all too well. And each of them is seeking a way back to their own fantasy world.
But Nancy’s arrival marks a change at the Home. There’s a darkness just around each corner, and when tragedy strikes, it’s up to Nancy and her new-found schoolmates to get to the heart of things.
No matter the cost.

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Here’s an idea that is so perfect, so full of potential that just thinking of it makes me weep a little. Children disappear to magic lands, parallel universes, the underworld, a palace of clouds to have adventures, fall in love, come of age – only to be thrown out eventually. And they never truly find their way back into our world because that other place is what they think of as home. In the hands of Cat Valente, this idea would have probably turned into a whole series of beautiful, heartbreaking books, but Seanan McGuire (as capable a writer as she is) just is no Cat Valente.

The entire novella felt very cold. I can’t put my finger on why, that’s just the general feeling I took away from it. Nancy arrives at her new school, where everybody is somewhat like her. Everybody went to a different place and had to come back. They are all looking for their door to return to where they were happiest. I suppose this could all be taken as a metaphor for not wanting to grow up and trying to find your way back into childhood, but you know me – I always take magic seriously and I take these trips to other worlds literally.

As this novella is the first of a series, maybe McGuire will expand on all the things that were lacking here in later stories. But with a school full of world-travelling kids, there is just so much potential for cool stuff. To be fair, McGuire does show us some of the madness. Nancy went to the underworld (thus the frequent mentions of pomegranates), others went into a rainbow world, yet others lived in a zombie-infested place full of violence, or one full of vampires. But no  matter how gruesome or uninviting their world may seem to us outsiders, they all want to go back. The bit I found quite annoying was that there is a specific classification of worlds at Eleanor West’s Home for Wayward Children. There are logic and nonsense worlds, which can be subdivided into even more categories. Nancy – as any good protagonist would – asks about this in the beginning but then seems to lose interest and drops the topic. I feel that if you go to the trouble of building your own system for a multiverse, it would be nice to let the readers get a small glimpse of it.

An even bigger problem for me was the complete lack of emotional impact. I can live without world building, without logic (this is fantasy, after all), even without much plot. But I need characters to hold on to, to understand, to feel something. Nancy’s slightly catatonic state was completely understandable. I don’t quite get why in her underworld, standing as still as a statue was so important, but okay, let’s roll with it. Nancy’s roomate Sumi may have been a sterotypical cloud cuckoo lander, but at least she brought some movement into a very slow, boring plot.

Speaking of plot. I expected a sort of anti-Harry Potter, a story of a girl feeling misplaced in this world, wanting to go back to the world of the dead, now finding her way in a school with others who feel just as much that they don’t belong. An anti-magic school if you like. But the book changes its mind and turns into a murder mystery. Which, okay fine. Except I didn’t really care about any of the murder victims or even about who did it and why. When the characters are so pale that they are barely cardboard, I find it difficult to care about their fate.

every heart a doorway cover detail

Instead of staying on the topic that drew me in (I know it’s not the author’s job to cater to my very specific needs, although I often wish it were :D), focusing on how these children had to leave a world behind, leave their adventures and – I assume – friends, and finding a place in this world, this novella deals mostly with the murders of several students and, occasionally, with people’s sexuality and gender identity. Sadly, that’s about the only positive thing I got out of this  – some character diversity. I did like both Kade and Nancy, although Nancy remains pretty pale throughout, but this may be due to how the underworld shaped her to be.

I’m not a writer, so I can’t put my finger on what exactly would have to be done differently to make this story good. But it just left me completely cold from beginning to end. Looking back at the entire novella, I don’t see the point. I didn’t like the plot, didn’t care for the characters, and the ending had no impact whatsoever. In fact, for a while I thought Nancy was going to kill herself to return to the underworld, which – drastic as it may be – would at least have been something proactive, something that comes with a cost, and would return her to the underworld. You can guess that this did not happen… The ending that did happen cheapens the entire point of the book.

All my problems with this book may very well be my own fault for having set my expectations too high or for having misunderstood the book description, but that doesn’t change that I really disliked Every Heart a Doorway. To me it felt like Seanan McGuire was trying to write a Cat Valente story and failed miserably. I’ll give the next book in the series a chance, but if that turns out to be equally boring, I will probably stick to McGuire’s other books.

MY RATING: 3,5/10 – Bad

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Second opinions:

 

Catherynne M. Valente – Indistinguishable From Magic

You all know I go a little coo-coo when it comes to Cat Valente’s books, right? So I pre-ordered this sometime last year, as soon as I found out it would be published. Now imagine my shriek of joy when I got an e-ARC in my mailbox. Yes, it was loud. The boyfriend thought I had seriously injured myself. And then I sank into a cloud of words and didn’t come up for air until I was finished.

indistinguishable from magicINDISTINGUISHABLE FROM MAGIC
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Mad Norwegian Press, 6 May 2014
Paperback: 244 pages
Standalone non-fiction
Review copy from the publisher
My rating: 8/10

First sentence: These days, it’s almost a Cartesian axiom: I am a geeky postmodern girl, therefore I love Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

In Indistinguishable from Magic, more than 60 essays by New York Times-bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland) are brought together in print for the first time, sharing Cat’s observations and insights about fairy tales and myths, pop culture, gender and race issues, an amateur’s life on planet Earth and much more. Join Cat as she studies the fantasy genre’s inner clockwork to better comprehend its infatuation with medievalism (AKA “dragon bad, sword pretty”), considers the undervalued importance of the laundry machine to women’s rights in locales as wide-ranging as Japan and the steampunk genre, and comes to understand that so much of shaping fantasy works is about making puppets seem real and sympathetic (otherwise, you’re just playing with dolls).

Also featured: Cat takes a hard look at why she can’t stop writing about Persephone, dwells upon the legacy of poets in Cleveland, and examines how stories teach us how to survive – if Gretel can kill the witch, Snow White can return from the dead, and Rapunzel can live in the desert, trust that you can too.

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Mad Norwegian Press are known (by me, at least) for such collections as Chicks Dig Time Lords and Whedonistas and the feshly-Hugo-nominated Queers Dig Time Lords –  book-shaped love letters to fandom. But they also publish collections of essays by single authors. Having been to her blog a couple of times, I know that I enjoy Cat’s non-fiction almost as much as the made-up stories she shares with her readers. The release of Indistinguishable From Magic has been pushed back a couple of months but, trust me, you want to get your hands on this!

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” – Arthur C. Clarke

My approach to collections is usually to read them front to back and then maybe go back to my favorite pieces and re-read them. I went the same way about Indistinguishable From Magic, except I went back all the time to highlight passages, and jot down book recommendations, and make notes to look this or that thing up on the internet later. It is a treasure cove of geeky goodness.

But most impressively, this book made me feel more accepted and more understood than anything else I’d read before. Growing up as someone who loves fantasy books wasn’t particularly harrowing on me. I always had friends and they accepted my quirks as a given, not questioning why I would be into that weird stuff about made-up worlds, why I would name my pets after Hobbits and characters from Labyrinth. But still, there was nobody around who shared that obsession. Then the internet happened and suddenly, I wasn’t so alone anymore. Cat Valente gets that. Oh, how she gets it.

I choose magic. I choose invented histories. I choose epic battles between armies of wolves and spriggans. I choose witchraft, ray guns, AI, and dark gods. I choose swashbuckling, cruel queens, and talking beasts. I choose cross-dressing orphan heroines. I choose unreliable narrators. I choose my friends.

Whether I share her opinion on the importance of folklore or not (I do), whether I agree with her paper – “Follow the Yellow Brick Road” – on Alice, Dorothy, and The Nutcracker‘s Clara, I couldn’t help but feel like I was talking to a friend. In fact, if I hadn’t admired and envied her before, after this collection, I want to be her best friend. Someone I can call late at night to talk about that old Doctor Who episode that made me cry again, or how underrated Flora Segunda is. I think she’d just get it, happily brew herself a cup of cocoa and discuss the night away.

While the collection is structured by topic – pop culture, gender in SFF, publishing – every section overflows with love for the genre and the community. Yes, there are rants about our failings, and pleas to behave like decent human beings – within fandom and outside of it – but the overwhelming feeling I got was this endless love for fantasy and science fiction. That’s something I can get behind.

indistinguishable from magic
Cat Valente also reveals a fair bit of herself through her writing. It depends, of course, on how you read her articles and how much you know about her already, but the fact that she can’t let go of Persephone speaks volumes. Her experience as an army wife, living in Japan, keeps coming up and if you’ve read a bit of her short fiction you’ll recognize sides of Cat in them that suddenly make all the more sense. You understand that behind that achingly beautiful prose is a full person with dreams and a past, and all the puzzle pieces fall together. So in a way, this is probably the Valente work in which she is most vulnerable and open about herself as a writer and as a human being. Obviously, I love her all the more for being that brave.

While Indistinguishable from Magic, as a book should, starts with a foreword, I will end this review with it. Unsurprisingly to anyone who knows a little bit about Cat Valente, the foreword is written by her friend Seanan McGuire. I have no words for how jealous I am of their friendship. The introduction not only shows off McGuire’s own hand at writing poetic prose but it shines with love and friendship and respect. And while I don’t know Cat Valente personally, I believe every word Seanan McGuire says about her. It is obvious from Valente’s prose that she must at least have a little bit of magic in her, eaten some of those pomegranate seeds, been sprinkled with just a thimble-ful of fairy dust.

 She is a poet and a poem, wrapped up in the same star-and-moon-tanned  palimpsest skin. She contains many contradictions. She’s the serious mermaid explaining to you why trading fins for feet was a feminist action, and why the sacrifice of a voice is sometimes a simple thing, because there are so many kinds of voices, child; the sea witch left you fingers, left you figures, left you everything you’ll ever need to make this tale your own. She’s the laughing gingerbread witch standing by the chicken coop, feathers in her hair and a promise on her lips that you may or may not want to hear, because promises are prophecies, in their own way, in their own time. She is her own once upon a time, and her own happy ending, and those are two of the best things in the world to be.

MY RATING:  8/10  –  Excellent

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Do Want! – Upcoming Books on My Radar

I was browsing through io9’s guide for March and noticed it was time for another one of these excitement posts.

J. A. Nielsen – The Runaway King (The Ascendance Trilogy #2) (March 1st)

Ever since The Booksmugglers’ glowing review of The False Prince, it has been sitting on my TBR pile. Given the fact it shares said “pile” with so many other books, I can afford to wait until the trilogy/series is finished (or nearly finished) before I start reading. I have no idea if I will actually like this but the Booksmugglers are pretty reliable in picking the awesome from the bad books.

runaway kingA kingdom teetering on the brink of destruction. A king gone missing. Who will survive? Find out in the highly anticipated sequel to Jennifer A. Nielsen’s blockbuster THE FALSE PRINCE!

Just weeks after Jaron has taken the throne, an assassination attempt forces him into a deadly situation. Rumors of a coming war are winding their way between the castle walls, and Jaron feels the pressure quietly mounting within Carthya. Soon, it becomes clear that deserting the kingdom may be his only hope of saving it. But the further Jaron is forced to run from his identity, the more he wonders if it is possible to go too far. Will he ever be able to return home again? Or will he have to sacrifice his own life in order to save his kingdom?

The stunning second installment of The Ascendance Trilogy takes readers on a roller-coaster ride of treason and murder, thrills and peril, as they journey with the Runaway King!

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Charles de Lint and Charles Vess – The Cats of Tanglewood Forest (March 5th)

Just look at that cover. If you’ve seen even one illustration of Neil Gaiman’s Stardust by Charles Vess, you know why I’m so excited. In addition, Charles de Lint has been on my radar for years and this book sounds just charming.

cats of tanglewood forestThe magic is all around you, if only you open your eyes….

Lillian Kindred spends her days exploring the Tanglewood Forest, a magical, rolling wilderness that she imagines to be full of fairies. The trouble is, Lillian has never seen a wisp of magic in her hills–until the day the cats of the forest save her life by transforming her into a kitten. Now Lillian must set out on a perilous adventure that will lead her through untamed lands of fabled creatures–from Old Mother Possum to the fearsome Bear People–to find a way to make things right.

In this whimsical, original folktale written and illustrated throughout in vibrant full color by two celebrated masters of modern fantasy, a young girl’s journey becomes an enchanting coming-of-age story about magic, friendship, and the courage to shape one’s own destiny.

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Seanan McGuire – Midnight Blue-Light Special (InCryptid #2) (March 5th)

I still haven’t read anything by Seanan McGuire or her alter ego Mira Grant (althouth I own a bunch of her books). But liking Seanan the way I do, just from listening to interviews and her delicious squees on the SF Squeecast, I cannot help but be excited anyway.

midnight blue-light specialCryptid, noun:
1. Any creature whose existence has been suggested but not proven scientifically. Term officially coined by cryptozoologist John E. Wall in 1983.
2. That thing that’s getting ready to eat your head.
3. See also: “monster.”

The Price family has spent generations studying the monsters of the world, working to protect them from humanity–and humanity from them. Enter Verity Price. Despite being trained from birth as a cryptozoologist, she’d rather dance a tango than tangle with a demon, and when her work with the cryptid community took her to Manhattan, she thought she would finally be free to pursue competition-level dance in earnest. It didn’t quite work out that way…

But now, with the snake cult that was killing virgins all over Manhattan finally taken care of, Verity is ready to settle down for some serious ballroom dancing—until her on-again, off-again, semi-boyfriend Dominic De Luca, a member of the monster-hunting Covenant of St. George, informs her that the Covenant is on their way to assess the city’s readiness for a cryptid purge. With everything and everyone she loves on the line, there’s no way Verity can take that lying down.

Alliances will be tested, allies will be questioned, lives will be lost, and the talking mice in Verity’s apartment will immortalize everything as holy writ–assuming there’s anyone left standing when all is said and done. It’s a midnight blue-light special, and the sale of the day is on betrayal, deceit…and carnage.

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Ellen Datolow and Terri Windling (eds.) – Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells (March 19th)

In addition to reading more short fiction online, the bloggosphere has also pushed me to be interested in (print) anthologies. And this one sounds just up my alley. It doesn’t always have to be steampunk! I find something inherently magical about gaslamp fantasy, even if it comes without cogs and clockwork. Again, I admit, the cover decided it for me. Let’s not delude ourselves, even in the digital reading world, covers are still damn influential.

queen victoria's book of spellsFrom the extraordinary award-winning editor duo, Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, comes an anthology with Gaslamp Fantasy as the theme. Furthermore, it will have 18 brand-new Tales not published before.

The Line-up:
“The Fairy Enterprise” by Jeffrey Ford
“From the Catalogue of the Pavilion of the Uncanny and Marvelous, Scheduled for Premiere at the Great Exhibition (Before the Fire)” by Genevieve Valentine
“The Memory Book” by Maureen McHugh
“Queen Victoria’s Book of Spells” by Delia Sherman
“La Reine D’Enfer” by Kathe Koja
“Briar Rose” by Elizabeth Wein
“The Governess” by Elizabeth Bear
“Smithfield” by James P. Blaylock
“The Unwanted Women of Surrey” by Kaaron Warren
“Charged” by Leanna Renee Hieber
“Mr. Splitfoot” by Dale Bailey
“Phosphorus” by Veronica Schanoes
“We Without Us Were Shadows” by Catherynne M. Valente
“The Vital Importance of the Superficial” by Ellen Kushner and Caroline Stevermer
“The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown” by Jane Yolen
“A Few Twigs He Left Behind” by Gregory Maguire
“Their Monstrous Minds” by Tanith Lee
“Estella Saves the Village” by Theodora Goss

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That’s it, folks. It looks like March is full of wonderful book releases. The ones above are the books I’ll definitely be getting this month. What are you excited for?