Ten books and still going strong: not many series can make this claim, no matter the genre, and yet Seanan McGuire’s October Daye appears immune from the danger of “wash, rinse, repeat” that can affect other book cycles. I guess it mostly depends on the eclectic nature of the author’s writing, able to speak with many different voices in a wide range of stories, where the only common factor is given by strong, believable and easy-to-care-for main characters.
Toby is indeed the quintessence of such characters: her drive comes from the understanding and acceptance of her assets and faults, and the ability to use them all for the solution of the problem at hand; and also from the strength she can draw from the diverse and multi-faceted family she has built around herself over time.
This new story starts with one of those family moments that look even more precious because we readers know all too well they are not going to last long: Toby is hosting a slumber party for the younger folks, and there is a great deal of goofing around and delightful silliness that help us reacquaint ourselves with the characters and their background – that is, until reality intrudes once more in the form of the convocation for a conclave that will rule on the new-found cure for elf shot and the possibility to use it on the victims.
Fae politics – or maybe just politics, and diplomacy – are not something Toby is comfortable with, but in this case she is very passionate about alchemist Walther’s discovery, because of the dual nature of elf shot: as a way to circumvent Oberon’s prohibition about Fae killing other Fae, since it puts them to sleep for a hundred years and therefore effectively removes them from the scene, elf shot has been the established way of life for a long time, and of course the undying and unchangeable Fae don’t respond easily to anything that alters the status quo; but the downside of it is that elf shot kills changelings.
This is the point where the “changeling problem”, to quote an equally cruel designation, comes to the fore once again, to the annoyance and dismay of those Fae who would prefer to keep ignoring it: the range of reactions goes from appalling to dumbfounding, with the former belonging to those who don’t care at all about changelings, since they are placed too low on the scale to even deserve consideration, and the latter to those who do care but believe that a cure would engender a careless use of elf shot, once it was deprived of its threatening quality.
Most of all the assembled Fae are concerned about change, about the subversion of an established modus vivendi that has served them for so long that they have forgotten how to desire something different, or even think about it. In the variegated responses to the availability of the cure there is a common factor, the fear of moving in a different direction, of walking another path and therefore challenging all that has been the accepted norm until that moment. The best summary of this attitude is given by the Luidaeg, whose comments in the course of this novel are both enlightening and delightfully amusing:
The idea that Faerie should always be a twisted mirror of the human medieval age is proof that sometimes people don’t like change. […] Anyone who says the past was perfect is a liar and wasn’t there. Everything that thinks can aspire, and everything that aspires wants something better than what they’ve left behind.
The Fae, faced with the prospect of being deprived of what has been their weapon of choice, balk at the very idea of losing it, of losing the only offensive method allowed to them: for this reason I saw the whole question as an interesting parallel to the ongoing debate about the procurement and use of personal weapons that has occupied so much space in recent news, and still does. As usual, McGuire lays the problem before her readers’ eyes and lets them see all aspects of the issue, and draw their own conclusions, without unnecessary and lengthy sermons: Professor Tolkien would say that she uses applicability rather than imposing allegory, and as such I commend her choice, her way of making us think without appearing to do so.
This being an October Daye story, however, means that debate and discussion take second place to a series of assaults – some of them ending in murder – that occur when the conclave is in recess and that show the use of a peculiar, unheard-of kind of magic, one that leaves no traces of its user, therefore rendering Toby’s investigation so much more difficult. We see her struggle with the scant evidence she can gather, and yet this only manages to increase her determination to find the perpetrators, all the while juggling her obligations as a hero of the realm and as the protector of the people she calls family.
The threat keeps circling closer and closer to Toby and her own, like a blood-hungry shark, and when it strikes at the very heart of what she holds dear we are forced to witness one of the more soul-shattering moments of the whole series, not just because of the traumatic scene deploying before our eyes but because of the possible consequences that will come from it. This might very well be the most difficult choice that Toby has to make in the long, painful string of harrowing choices lined up in her past, because it might put her in the position of having to give up the last shreds of her humanity to keep hold of what she has gained until now. I know it makes little sense if you have not read the book, but I want to avoid any spoiler for those who are still making their way through the series: suffice it to say that, as always, Toby’s road is not only liberally doused in blood, but also in agonizing loss. That whatever she chooses, there will always be a price to be paid, and that price will entail heartbreak, no matter what direction she takes.
That’s the main reason I like her so much as a character, that no matter how much she breaks – physically and metaphorically – she always finds the way to pick up the pieces and move forward. Not shrugging off the hurts and losses, but embracing them as part of what she is and what she will become: this, more than anything else, is what makes her real, convincing and always a joy to behold, even in the direst of circumstances.
There is much to be still explored in this world, and with these characters, and if the few hints that have been tossed around about what’s to come are any indication, we are in for some very interesting times. I can hardly wait.