When a series runs for a good number of books as this one, the danger of reader weariness must be taken into account: Seanan McGuire’s October Daye series, however, keeps flying at a very good speed and manages to reinvent itself, adding new information – or new turns of events – with each new installment. This is particularly true of A Red Rose Chain: the story is compelling and delves into several interesting issues without ever appearing preachy or allegorical (always a plus with me), but it also shows the author’s complete control over pacing and characterization – a level of control so firm that the story never sags for a single moment, turning it into one of the best in the series, so far.
I will try to be as spoiler-free as possible, but be warned I might mention some as-yet-uncovered detail from previous books so… read on at your own peril!
In the aftermath of the events shown in The Winter Long, some of which were real game-changers for Toby, our heroine seems to enjoy a period of relative peace. Well, as much as the word ‘peace’ can be applied to her life, of course: after all, the novel starts with Toby battling some feral, dog-like fae creatures with the help of her friends…
The dangerous beasts are soon revealed as the fae equivalent of lonesome puppies looking for people to love and care for them, and the adventure closes on a humorous note, and a few scenes where good-natured banter between Toby and her allies shows she’s found a sort of balance in her life – that is, until the realm of Silences, where the former Queen of Mists has taken shelter after being exposed for an interloper, declares war on the rightful Queen Arden, and the latter sends Toby as an ambassador to try and avoid a bloody conflict. Armed with this resolve, and flanked by Quentin, May, Tybalt (of course!) and alchemist Walther – a welcome return for a character about whom we’ll learn a few interesting details – October departs for Silences, where she will do her literally bloody best to defuse the brewing war and where she will find much more than she bargained for.
One of the best features of this novel is the focus on court politics: we know by now that the fae move in strange ways, but until now we saw only glimpses of these weird realms, while A Red Rose Chain plunges us into the thick of it – this full immersion in the dealings and scheming of the kingdom of Silences is both an enlightening and terrifying experience, one that taxes even Toby’s endless stamina, and those of her friends. If there are some moments of humorous relief in the scenes where our heroine is forced to deal with etiquette and the Divided Courts’ dressing code, the story becomes all too soon a descent into ever-darkening circles of Hell. After the coup that brought a change of rulers to the realm of Silences, no one really knew what was happening inside and what the living conditions where: it took me just a few pages after the “ambassadorial” group’s arrival to perceive the dreadful vibes given off by the place. There is a nightmarish quality to Silences as described by Seanan McGuire, and it has less to do with the attitude of its king or his revenge-bent guest, and more with the behavior of the courtiers, whose desire to curry favor with the king compels them to willingly participate in the plot to beat Toby into submission, through odious acts of intimidation or outright mockery.
King Rhys is a bigot and a racist – there are no other words to describe him: if the pureblood fae generally tend to look on changelings, or partly-animal other fae, as inferior beings, they prefer to do so through studied indifference. Not Rhys: he has espoused a “racial purity” goal that he pursues with single-minded, sadistic pleasure and the same inner conviction of righteousness we can see in real-life examples of the same ilk. The comparison with present-day issues is clear, and as I said before I love the way the author explores and comments them without need for a virtual lectern or lengthy exposition: all she needs to do is present the situation, and allow us to watch it through Toby’s eyes, and those of her friends. It’s more than enough to drive the message home in no uncertain terms.
In the process, October’s character takes on new facets and new definitions: at the beginning of this series she was alone, having lost everyone and everything, including her attempts at a ‘normal’ life. Once she embraces her new existence – and, more important, who and what she is – Toby starts gathering a circle of people who admire and share her commitment to others, her willingness to sacrifice life and limb in order to serve justice. She started as an outsider – neither fae nor human – and she morphed into someone who is proud of her dual heritage and does everything in her power not to let go of either component of it. Some time ago, while discussing Toby with a fellow blogger who started reading this series, I said that she transcends both her natures, that trying to be only fae or only human she would do a disservice to herself, because in the end she turned out to be more than the sum of her parts – and here she shows that in admirable detail.
The other characters shine as well, both on their own and as part of Toby’s world: Quentin in particular is swiftly losing his metaphorical baby fat and evolving into a self-possessed young man. Their relationship hovers on the threshold between mother/son and older sister/younger brother, and I could see how much of Toby’s determination and willingness to sacrifice herself has rubbed off on him, making him a far better person than he started with. And of course this would not be a complete review without a mention of Tybalt and the way his liaison with October keeps building: if I had harbored any fears about their talks turning into sweet-mushy drivel (not that I did, of course!) here they would have disappeared, because these two enjoy a wonderfully confrontational relationship, based on the mutual awareness of talents and flaws, and reciprocal trust built over time. What’s truly delightful here is the juxtaposition of Tybalt’s old-fashioned, Shakespearean-type speech patterns and Toby’s more modern slang, and the fun they can poke at each other because of it: another way to balance the darker elements of the story with some much needed light.
Any real complaints I might express concern the very limited presence of the Luidaeg in this story – even though I understand the need not to overuse her – and the author’s tendency to recap the characters’ history: if a few reminders of past events are welcome, and at times necessary as a link to present situations, I think that explaining in rich detail who May is, or where Quentin comes from – for example – tends to slow an otherwise optimal narrative flow. Readers who have reached this far are very aware of these specifics and don’t need to be told again who’s who: personally I found it only distracting and also a little bit frustrating.
Nonetheless, I enjoyed A Red Rose Chain very, very much, and I’m ready to celebrate book nr. 10 when it arrives – hopefully soon…