Books

Books : reviews

Seanan McGuire.
Sparrow Hill Road.
Daw. 2014

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 4 April 2016

So when the crossroads call and your faith is thin
   And you’re afraid you might explode,
Go and talk to the girl in the green silk gown
   Who walks on Sparrow Hill Road.

Rose Marshall died in 1952 in Buckley Township, Michigan, run off the road by a man named Bobby Cross—a man who had sold his soul to live forever, and intended to use her death to pay the price of his immortatity. Trouble was, he didn’t ask Rose what she thought of the idea.

It’s been more than sixty years since that night, and she’s still sixteen, and she’s still running.

They have names for her all over the country: the Girl in the Diner, the Phantom Prom Date, the Girl in the Green Silk Gown. Mostly she just goes by "Rose," a hitchhiking ghost girl with her thumb out and her eyes fixed on the horizon, trying to outrace a man who never sleeps, never stops, and never gives up on the idea of claiming what’s his. She’s the angel of the overpass, she’s the darling of the truck stops, and she’s going to figure out a way to win her freedom. After all, it’s not like it can kill her.

You can’t kill what’s already dead.

And when the night hails down and you’re afraid
   That you’ll never get what you’re owed,
Go and talk to the girl in the green silk gown
   Who died on Sparrow Hill Road.

16-year-old Rose Marshall died on her way to the prom, driven off the road by Bobby Cross. For the last 60 years she has walked the ghostroads, helping other car crash victims cross over safely, taking sustenance from the kindness of strangers. She is quite safe from the unkind strangers, being dead. But she is not safe from Bobby Cross, who needs to take her soul in his quest for immortality. She has spent the last 60 years running from him. But now she decides to run no more.

For the first few chapters, I didn’t really enjoy this. It’s very episodic, each chapter feeling a bit like a stand-alone short story. And it is trying to build a myth out of the depth of history, which I find hard to take seriously when it’s about American highways. (“Americans think 100 years is a long time, while the English think 100 miles is a long way.”) However, I persevered, as I like the author’s other work. And that perseverance was rewarded; the tale builds in depth, and character, and tension. Rose moves from being a naive teenager to an experienced ghostwalker (even if the timeline skips around, to help build the background), realising that she has to confront the being who killed her. And the various other characters – alive and dead – flesh things out well.

So as well as the gritty urban fantasy of the October Daye novels, here we have McGuire doing a more lyrical rural fantasy.

Seanan McGuire.
Dusk or Dark or Dawn or Day.
Tor. 2017

When her sister Patty died, Jenna blamed herself.

When Jenna died, she blamed herself for that, too. Unfortunately Jenna died too soon. And now she must work to regain the years that were lost to her. But something has come for the ghosts of New York, something beyond reason, beyond death, beyond hope. And only Jenna stands in its way.

Seanan McGuire.
Discount Armageddon.
Daw. 2012

Seanan McGuire.
Midnight Blue-Light Special.
Daw. 2013

Seanan McGuire.
Half-Off Ragnarok.
Daw. 2014

What do gorgons. basilisks, and frogs with feathers all have in common? They re all considered mythological by modern science, and some people are working very hard to keep them that way. Alexander Price is a member of a cryptozoological lineage that spans generations, and it’s his job to act as a buffer between the human and cryptid worlds—not an easy task when you’re dealing with women who have snakes in place of hair, little girls who may actually be cobras, and oh, right, brilliant, beautiful, distressingly curious Australian zookeepers. And then there’s the matter of the murders. …

Alex thought he was choosing the easier career when he decided to specialize in non-urban cryptids, leaving the cities to his little sister, Verity. He had no idea what he was letting himself in for. It’s a family affair, and everyone—from his reanimated grandfather to his slightly broken telepathic cousin—is going to find themselves drawn in before things get any better.

There are some things that you can train for. And then there are the things you have to figure out on the fly.

This is definitely the latter.

Seanan McGuire.
Pocket Apocalypse.
Daw. 2015

Endangered, adjective: Threatened with extinction or immediate harm.

Australia, noun: A good place to become endangered.

Alexander Price has survived gorgons, basilisks, and his own family—no small feat, considering that his family includes two telepaths, a reanimated corpse, and a colony of talking, pantheistic mice. Still, he’s starting to feel like he’s got the hang of things…at least until his girlfriend, Shelby Tanner, shows up asking pointed questions about werewolves and the state of his passport. From there, it’s just a hop, skip, and a jump to Australia, a continent filled with new challenges, new dangers, and yes, rival cryptozoologists who don’t like their “visiting expert” very much.

Australia is a cryptozoologist’s dream, filled with unique species and unique challenges. Unfortunately, it’s also tilled with Shelby’s family, who aren’t delighted by the length of her stay in America. And then there are the werewolves to consider: infected killing machines who would like nothing more than to claim the continent as their own.

The continent that currently includes Alex.

Survival is hard enough when you’re on familiar ground. Alex Price is very far from home, but there’s one thing he knows for sure: he’s not going down without a fight.

Seanan McGuire.
Chaos Choreography.
Daw. 2016

Seanan McGuire.
Magic For Nothing.
Daw. 2017

Improbable, adjective:
   1. Not very likely to happen; not probable.
   2. Probably not a very good idea anyway.
   3. See also “bad plan.”

As the youngest of the three Price children, Antimony is used to people not expecting much from her. She’s been happy playing roller derby and hanging out with her cousins, leaving the globe-trotting to her older siblings while she stays at home and tries to decide what she wants to do with her life. She always knew that one day, things would have to change. She didn’t think they’d change so fast.

Annie’s expectations keep getting shattered. She didn’t expect Verity to declare war on the Covenant of St. George on live television. She didn’t expect the Covenant to take her sister’s threat seriously. And she definitely didn’t expect to be packed off to London to infiltrate the Covenant from the inside...but as the only Price in her generation without a strong resemblance to the rest of the family, she’s the perfect choice to play spy. They need to know what’s coming. Their lives may depend on it.

But Annie has some secrets of her own, like the fact that she’s started setting things on fire when she touches them, and has no idea how to control it. Now she’s headed halfway around the world, into the den of the enemy, where blowing her cover could get her killed. She’s pretty sure things can’t get much worse.

Antimony Price is about to learn just how wrong it’s possible for one cryptozoologist to be.

Seanan McGuire.
Indexing.
47North. 2013

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 20 February 2014

“Never underestimate the power of a good story.”

Good advice…especially when a story can kill you.

For most people, the story of their lives is just that: the accumulation of time, encounters, and actions into a cohesive whole. But for an unfortunate few, that day-to-day existence is affected—perhaps infected is a better word—by memetic incursion: where fairy tale narratives become reality, often with disastrous results.

That’s where the ATI Management Bureau steps in, an organization tasked with protecting the world from fairy tales, even while most of their agents are struggling to keep their own fantastic archetypes from taking over their lives. When you’re dealing with storybook narratives in the real world, it doesn’t matter if you’re Snow White, Sleeping Beauty, or the Wicked Queen: no one gets a happily ever after.

Special Agent Henrietta Marchen works for the ATI Bureau, keeping the world safe from narrative incursion. And she knows the problems better than many: she’s an unactivated Snow White, and needs to avoid apples. Her partners include an activated Shoemaker’s Elf, and an unactivated Wicked Sister, who could be trying to murder her. And Henry might just need to activate a Pied Piper to solve her latest case.

This is a sort of urban fantasy take on the background to Lackey’s “Five Hundred Kingdoms” series, or maybe “Once Upon a Time” meets “Grimm”.

The book started life as a serialised novel, and I thought it was going to be rather patchy, with a disjoint “monster of the episode” structure, and a lot of recapitulation to help new readers. But is soon settles down into a solid arc, and early events that seem to be unconnected all come together. It’s got a good snarky vibe, and an interesting play on fairy tales, how we don’t know the old ones that well any more, and how new ones are coming in to take their place.

Seanan McGuire.
Indexing: Reflections.
47North. 2015

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 15 October 2016

“For her to love me, she had to be willing to kill me. Anything else would show that her heart was untrue.”

The struggle against not-so-charming storybook narratives isn$rsquo;t the only complicating factor in Henrietta “Henry” Marchen’s life. As part of the ATI Management Bureau team protecting the world from fairy tales gone awry, she’s wrestling with her unwanted new status as a Snow White, dealing with a potentially dangerous Pied Piper, and wrangling a most troublesome wicked stepsister—along with a budding relationship with Jeff, her teammate.

But when a twisted, vicious Cinderella breaks out of prison and wreaks havoc, things go from disenchanted to deadly. And once Henry realizes someone is trying to use her to destroy the world, she knows that a new story is beginning—and this one might not have a happily ever after.

Henry Marchen’s life gets even more complicated now that she is an activated Snow White. She has to lead her team against a rogue Cinderella, which might mean that she has to embrace her status, which might kill her. And in trying to save the world, she puts her team in terrible danger.

This sequel carries on directly from where the previous book left off, with the team undergoing a review of that case. Again we have a few seemingly disjoint chapters, and again they are shown to be more relevant than we first realised. We find out more about Henry’s brother who escaped being a Rose Red, and much more about Sloane and how she got to be a Wicked Sister. We see some of the tragic downsides of incarcerating activated fairy tale characters to protect the rest of the world, and we learn more about the original form of various fairy tales.

Although we know from this style of book that everything will work out in the end, it’s not at all clear how that will happen, and who will suffer and be lost along the way. I’m looking forward to more tales in this world.

Seanan McGuire.
Rosemary and Rue.
Daw. 2009

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 9 January 2011

Sir Toby Daye is a Changeling: half human, half fae, fitting in neither world. She was a PI working for the fae, but now, barely recovered from a traumatic captivity, is passing as human, ekeing out a minimum wage existence in San Francisco. But when an old pureblood friend is murdered, cursing Toby with her dying breath to find her killers, she is thrown back into the deadly fae world.

This is a combination of urban fantasy and noir detective work. Toby is the kind of detective who gets beat up and shot until she figures out who the bad guys are. This is lifted above the ordinary by having a rich backstory (for example, this incident where Toby got her hotly-contested knighthood is mentioned only in passing) and a dark, complex fae society. There are lots of different races of fae, useful to ensure that not everyone has a complete set of superpowers.

Toby solves this crime, but it costs her dearly. The main story finishes, but there are oodles of loose threads ready for a series. I'm interested to see if she uses the same blood-spattered detection techniques in her future cases.

Seanan McGuire.
A Local Habitation.
Daw. 2010

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 16 February 2011

Sir Toby Daye's liege, Sylvester, has sent her off on a mission to discover why his niece January has dropped out of contact. It's politically sensitive, as January's domain sits on a sensitive border, but it seems a simple enough task, and so Sylvester gets Toby to take along Quentin, as part of his training. Of course, it's not at all simple, and Toby becomes trapped in a battle with a serial killer.

More great urban fantasy, here in a high tech software company. It uses the classic "last man standing" ploy for identifying the killer (although the identity is pretty obvious early on), and again, Toby sheds a lot of blood along the way, and pays a high price in the end. We get to see a few new kinds of Fae, plus more on the problem of being a Changeling who can't fit into either the human or the Fae world. One niggle: Toby seems to have mostly forgotten about her previous family. Will that plot point re-emerge later in the series?

Seanan McGuire.
An Artificial Night.
Daw. 2010

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 16 April 2011

Children -- pureblood, changeling, human -- have been stolen, including two from Toby Daye's best friends. So she sets out to get them back. But the thief is Blind Michael, stealing new children to make up his Wild Hunt. Toby will have to travel to his realm by one of the three deadly paths. And her Fetch has turned up on her doorstep, so she knows this quest will end in her death. But can she get the children back first?

This has Toby firmly back in the land of the Fae, where she gets put through the wringer more than once. The pace doesn't let up, and the ghastly ghostly dark lands where Blind Michael rules and brilliantly atmospheric. There's no real detecting here, just a quest to free the stolen kids. But Toby has to fight the bad guys just as much. And the interaction with children keeps bringing her back to thoughts of her own lost daughter.

Based on a survey of three so far, I think the books set mainly in Fae's domains work better than those more in the "real" world: a combination of Toby's kick-ass grit and the dangerous Fae works better than kick-ass grit in mundania.

Seanan McGuire.
Late Eclipses.
Daw. 2011

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 8 August 2011

Sir Toby Daye suffers again for Faerie. This time, her friend Lily, and her liege's wife Luna, are being poisoned. She knows the culprit is Oleander, who was responsible for her own loss of 14 years. But Luna's mad daughter Raysel is determined to implicate Toby, and the Queen of Faerie also wants Toby dead. And indeed, no-one else can detect Oleander. Is Toby instead going mad as part of her Changeling curse? Worse still, Toby's Fetch, May, is sure their time is soon.

More fast frantic action as Toby goes up against powerful foes, but discovers just how many friends she has. I'm not sure how much more the pain level can ramp up: Toby barely recovers from one set of most-painful-ever injuries before encountering a new even-more-painful set. But she bulls through in her own inimitable fashion. And she discovers some interesting things about her past, which are bound to have interesting consequences in the future...

Seanan McGuire.
One Salt Sea.
Daw. 2011

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 3 March 2012

Countess Toby Daye is settling in to her new role in the Goldengreen knowe, when, as usual, disaster strikes. Someone has kidnapped the two sons of Duchess Diana Lorden of the Undersea. If the sons are not returned within three days, the Undersea will go to war with the Queen of the Mists, and a lot of people will die. Toby promises to find them, return them, and uncover the culprit. And then things get personal.

An interesting expansion of the mythology, incorporating the undersea kingdom and its denizens. We already know Connor is a Selkie, but here we get the whole nine yards. There's a little less slam-bam action than in previous books, as Toby races around, trying to find who has taken the children (clear fairly soon on), and where they have been taken (which requires interrogating a few reticent rocks), whilst foiling the odd assassination attempt. It does, however, build up to a shattering finale. It will be interesting to see what Toby does next.

Seanan McGuire.
Ashes of Honor.
Daw. 2012

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 28 May 2013

!!! WARNING : SPOILERS FOR One Salt Sea !!!

Sir Toby Daye is causing concern to her friends: since losing both Connor and her daughter, she has been putting herself in stupid danger. However, that all changes when Etienne, another of Sylvester's knights, comes to her with a most unlikely call for help: his daughter Chelsea is missing. Worse than that, she's a changeling who can't control her powers, which might just rip Faerie apart. Toby is now back on track doing what she does best: risking her life to save children. And Tybalt, King of the Cats, lends a paw.

Toby suffers again, but this time it's more physical than mental anguish, as she struggles to find Chelsea, with the bad guys and a treacherous cat faction against her. However, she is now more willing to let her friends help her out. There is another shattering finale, but it's not personally shattering for Toby, so it is all rather less traumatic than usual. Indeed, if it wasn't for the fact there is another book announced, I would be happy to believe this was the end of the series. And a very good series it is too, so I'm glad Toby will be back.

Seanan McGuire.
Chimes at Midnight.
Daw. 2013

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 3 October 2015

Things are starting to look up for October “Toby” Daye. She’s training her squire, doing her job, and has finally allowed herself to grow closer to the local King of Cats. It seems like her life may finally be settling down…at least until dead changelings start appearing in the alleys of San Francisco, killed by an overdose of goblin fruit.

Toby’s efforts to take the problem to the Queen of the Mists are met with harsh reprisals, leaving her under sentence of exile from her home and everyone she loves. Now Toby must find a way to reverse the Queen’s decree, get the goblin fruit off the streets—and, oh, yes, save her own life, since more than a few of her problems have once again followed her home. And then there’s the question of the Queen herself, who seems increasingly unlikely to have a valid claim to the throne…

To find the answers, October and her friends will have to travel from the legendary Library of Stars into the hidden depths of the Kingdom of the Mists—and they’ll have to do it fast, because time is running out. In Faerie, some fates are worse than death.

October Daye is about to find out what they are.

Sir Toby Daye discovers an epidemic of goblin fruit on the streets. The drug is debilitating for Faerie, but is lethally addictive to halfbreeds and humans. Toby has to do the right thing, so she raises the issue with the Queen of the Mists, without much hope for a solution. But the Queen’s response is worse than she could imagine. So Toby finds herself in another race against time to save not only the kids at risk of goblin fruit, but herself. A lot of people are going to be very annoyed with her.

Again, Toby gets put through the wringer. But now, she has a gang of friends to help her; although that does mean that some of them get put through the wringer, too. But this is yet another great race against time. Like all these books, the events along the way, and the solution, have real consequences, for the people involved, and for future plot possibilities.

Seanan McGuire.
The Winter Long.
Daw. 2014

Toby thought she understood her own past; she thought she knew the score.

She was wrong.

It’s time to learn the truth.

Seanan McGuire.
A Red-Rose Chain.
Daw. 2015

When Queen Windermere’s seneschal is elf-shot and thrown into an enchanted sleep by agents from the neighboring Kingdom of Silences, Toby finds herself in a role she never expected to play: that of diplomat. She must travel to Portland, Oregon to convince King Rhys of Silences not to go to war against the Mists. But nothing is that simple, and what October finds in Silences is worse than she would ever have imagined.

How far will Toby go when lives are on the line, and when allies both old and new are threatened by a force she had never expected to face again? How much is October willing to give up, and how much is she willing to change? In Faerie, what’s past is never really gone.

It’s just waiting for an opportunity to pounce.

Seanan McGuire.
Once Broken Faith.
Daw. 2016

Politics have never been Toby Daye’s strong suit. When she travelled to the Kingdom of Silences to prevent them from going to war with her homeland, the Kingdom of the Mists, she wasn’t expecting to return with a cure for elf-shot and a whole new set of political headaches.

Now the events she unwittingly set in motion could change the balance of modern Faerie for ever, and she has been ordered to appear before a historic convocation of monarchs, hosted by Queen Windermere in the Mists and overseen by the High King and Queen themselves.

Naturally, things are barely underway when the first dead body shows up. As the only changeling in attendance, Toby is already the target of suspicion and hostility. Now she needs to find a killer before they strike again – and with the doors locked to keep the guilty from escaping, no one is safe.

As danger draws ever closer to her allies and the people she loves best, Toby will have to race against time to prevent the total political destabilisation of the West Coast and to get the convocation back on track… and if she fails, the cure for elf-shot may be buried for ever, along with the victims she was too slow to save.

Seanan McGuire.
Every Heart a Doorway.
Tor. 2016

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 21 July 2016

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 newfound schoolmates to get to the heart of things. No matter the cost.

There are adventures to be had in fantasy lands. But what happens when you come back from Fairyland, or Narnia, or wherever? How do you readjust to Mundania? Can you readjust? Or will you break, fruitlessly searching for your lost life, your true home?

Eleanor West runs a boarding schools for those children who can’t readjust. Their parents think them damaged, or wayward, or mad. Eleanor knows better, having herself returned from a Netherworld. Most learn to cope, in the company of those who understand. A few, a very few, find their way back. But when new girl Nancy arrives, dark things start happening, and the school itself is threatened. Is Nancy the source, or the trigger, of these events?

Life After Fantasy has always struck me as an issue. The scene at the end of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, where the Pevensie children return home after decades in Narnia, always horrified me: they had been adult royalty; how did they cope with being ordinary children again? Jo Walton tackles this issue in her wonderful short story, Relentlessly Mundane. Here Seanan McGuire tackles it differently, in a 170pp novella.

Despite wanting to go to Lewis’ Narnia (for the Talking Animals, if not for the sexism, racism, classism, bad theology, and shoddy plotting), and to Phillips’ Fairyland, I didn’t find myself attracted to any of the Netherworlds described by McGuire. (And I don’t think that’s just because there are no Pauline Baynes illustrations, or that I am half a century older than when I read the originals.) However, that lack of attraction is not a problem: it just serves to illustrate how everyone is different, and what is hearts-ease for one may be horror for another. But, consistently, Mundania is home for none.

This is not a typical school story, as it does not dwell on any lessons, except for some interesting Netherworld classification schemes. Nancy as new girl allows for some expository passages, but not that many. The tale focuses mainly on the deadly goings-on that threaten the school. And even there, we do not get a lot, since this is a novella. But McGuire does paint vivid pictures of the various main characters, and the very different homes they wish to return to. I wish this was a novel rather than a novella, and you can’t say fairer than that.