Eleven books down the road, and this story still feels fresh, intriguing and engrossing: I don’t know how many series can claim such a record, but surely Seanan McGuire’s October Daye saga deserves this tribute – even from a very biased reader, and fan, like me.
As The Brightest Fell starts we see October in a very happy place: the people in her extended family have brought her (somewhat forcibly, in truth) to a karaoke bar where they are throwing her a bachelorette party prior to the marriage with Tybalt, the handsome King of Cats. Letting go of her worries is not easy, but the sheer enthusiasm of the people she loves, and who love her back, is such that in the end she finds the right track and enjoys herself: how could she not when even the Luidaeg goes on-stage to sing? (yes, you read that correctly: the Luidaeg sings!) Yet, October’s misgivings were justified, as old-time readers might have expected from page one, because once she’s back home she receives a startling and rather unwelcome visit: her mother Amandine has come out of her seclusion to require that October find her older sister August, who has been missing for over a century, and to insure her changeling daughter’s cooperation Amandine proceeds to force both Tybalt and Jazz into their animal forms, taking them away as hostages until October has fulfilled her task.
Faced with such a difficult, near-impossible mission, October is forced to seek the assistance of the most improbable ally: Simon Torquill, August’s father, and also the man who turned October into a fish for fourteen years as she was looking for clues in the disappearance of Sylvester Torquill’s wife and daughter. The deal is not exempt from suspicions and old resentments from both sides, but it seems to work well enough once the two of them understand that they are teamed up for the good of the people they love, and the shared hazards of the journey manage to create a bond of sorts – under the watchful eye of Quentin, October’s squire, who is not as inclined as she is to grant Simon the benefit of the doubt.
The love of family is indeed the backbone of this story: the hardships October is ready to endure for her loved ones lead her to understand how Simon’s crimes were the result of his desperate search for August, and how much his journey into wickedness moved along a road paved with the best of intentions. This story sees Simon’s fight for redemption, his desperate attempts to make amends for his past crimes, and as this happens we get several glimpses of a very different person from the one we believed we knew: it was an unforeseen discovery, and one that often made me sympathize with him once I realized that there are times when we make horrible mistakes in the name of love, and that the price we have to pay is our own soul.
The other side of this coin is represented by October’s family – as in her blood relatives, of course, not the ones she gathered along the way and who constitute her real family. Amandine, the mysterious creature we always heard about but never truly saw, finally makes her appearance: until now she was a remote figure, one who preferred to stay away from everyone for her own purposes, and we might have been mistaken into believing she just wanted to keep her distance for some good reason, although her intervention to save October’s life by changing the balance of her blood pointed to an active interest in her changeling daughter. Well, we were quite mistaken. Amandine is not remote, she is contemptuous; she’s not just coldly distant as fae can be, she is a heartless manipulator bent on obtaining what she wants – and to hell with collateral damage, a concept that does not even cross her attention threshold.
The fae in Seanan McGuire’s world are not very good at empathy, granted: even people like Sylvester Torquill, for all his fairness and honesty, can’t avoid the feeling of superiority, of entitlement, that comes with their nature, and we have seen cases where this attitude was brought to the worst heights (or should I say “depths”?). But Amandine is quite another thing: she wants what she wants, and she does not care who or what she tramples as she seeks to get it: her desire is to be finally reunited with her lost daughter – her true daughter – and she feels no qualms in blackmailing her other daughter, the substandard, despised one, threatening the lives of people she cares about to ensure her compliance.
And if Amandine is a cold-blooded bitch, August fares no better, because she is a true fae – in the most negative sense of the word – as bigoted and short-sighted as the worst of them: not that I expected a warm sisterly reunion (I know by now how McGuire’s mind works), but for a while I thought that “old” Simon’s influence would have played a role in her psychological makeup. I could not have been more wrong. In the end, as far as character and personality go, October’s mother and sister fare a lot worse than her arch-enemy Simon, especially in light of what I learned about him in this novel.
As for Toby, I guess she was rarely so alone as she is here: except for Quentin, she is forced by circumstances to leave her support group behind and this of course heightens her feeling of isolation, exacerbated by Simon’s presence and the memory of everything she lost due to his past actions. McGuire never pulled any punches with October in the course of the series, but here she puts her character through an even worse wringer because it’s an emotional rather than a physical one: this time Toby does not bleed even once – as she half-jokingly remarks at some point – but the emotional pain she must endure looks worse than any bodily damage she sustained before. The brunt of it all comes from her interactions with Amandine of course: despite having given up on her mother a long time ago, it’s clear that a part of her still yearns for – if not affection – at least recognition, for a sense of belonging, and once it becomes evident that she will never get it, not from Amandine, we can feel the unexpressed pain and betrayal that this realization carries, we can feel the new scars forming on top of the old ones:
For years, I’d blocked out how she had hurt me, refusing to think about it, refusing to even remember that it had happened […]
If at the end of The Brightest Fell we don’t all end deeply hating Amandine, I’d be very surprised…
This book does represent a huge turning point in the narrative arc, as the author says in the preface, and events all work toward showing this change and laying the basis for more, and on top of that there is a huge difference with previous installments, because the small ray of hope at the end is marred by the realization that it’s only temporary, that the game has shifted and the consequences are unpredictable. While all this was implied before, now it’s stated openly, and makes me wonder what the future holds for Toby and her family:
What we had here wasn’t safety. It was just the illusion of safety, it was still the only thing we had and, by Oberon, I was going to cling to it.
Whatever it is, I can’t wait to see it. The next book cannot arrive soon enough…