Toby Daye

Apr. 23rd, 2014 10:19 pm
raven: Karen Gillan as Amy Pond, wearing green and red and looking up (Default)
[personal profile] raven
I’ve just finished the October Daye books by Seanan McGuire, and enjoyed them very much - thanks to [personal profile] silly_cleo, who evangelised till I listened! Seriously, thank you. They’re kind of popcorn-candy books – one comes out every year – about a fairy private investigator in San Francisco. Really. It’s an original genre-smush, I’ll give it that, and McGuire’s got a passion for Irish fairy tales and myth that shines through clearly. Which is, you know, not my thing – I’m usually very resistant to Euro-centric depictions of fairies, and not at all interested in fairy tale retellings – and I’m surprised by how much I enjoyed these.

I guess what I actually like about the series is October, or Toby, herself. Oh, Toby! She is such the hard-boiled PI – grim narration, unwise caffeine and doughnut choices, prone to making sweeping generalisations about Just How Crappy Everything Is. I would find this terribly annoying, were it not for a number of major, game-changing factors. Firstly, there’s the faerie setting. (Much as it pains me, I will adopt McGuire’s spelling of that word for the rest of this post.) McGuire has done her research and her worldbuilding, and is very aware of how those aren’t the same thing. She gives us a slew of interesting races of people and cultures that sound like real cultures, complex and silly by turns: and with them, she gives us a genuinely fresh setting for what might be otherwise quite pedestrian murder-solving and missing-child plots. Actually, she makes a strength out of them. Nothing to make you look at both genres with fresh eyes than seeing how interestingly they can be made to fit together. So we have Toby, who is a “changeling” – in this universe, person with part human blood, part faerie, with a particular set of abilities and inabilities, and well-realised complex social status – and can do magic that mostly involves blood; but we also have shapeshifters, teleporters, people who can turn technology into magic and back again, hedonistic magic healers, people who are part goat, people who can change the world through their dreams, it’s a long and creative list.

Secondly, McGuire’s doing something interesting with gender in both her genres (or alternatively, a refreshing lack of interesting? I’m not sure which). I had no idea how much I needed the pop-culture staple, the hard-edged cynic private investigator, to be a woman until I saw it done. Toby lurks in alleyways and acts casually self-destructive and it’s great. It’s great. What’s notable about the Philip Marlowes of this world is that while their personal lives leave much to be desired, their abilities as investigators are never questioned, and similarly, neither are Toby’s. She is what she is, without apology for womanhood (or motherhood). On the flipside, it’s nice to just have casually non-sexist fantasy. Toby’s other hat is Sir October Daye, Knight – not with jousting, but with swordfighting, and a squire – and it’s nice to have that story lurking in the background, neither the focus nor ignored. Toby’s not the first woman to be a knight and there’s nothing in this story about proving herself. All that’s done, and taken for granted. Relatedly, there’s casual, unremarkable queerness in this universe, which I approve of thoroughly. A half-dozen recurring characters are queer, and the narrative takes them again as read. (One of them is an Indian-descended queer lady who shapeshifts into a raven. I am pleased.)

And thirdly! Like the best characters, Toby grows and learns. From being a self-confessed loner with self-destructive tendencies, who trusts no one but herself, slowly, slowly, Toby gains friends and allies, a partner, a household, a life. The first few books are uneven – partly, in my view, because Toby’s friendlessness makes them heavy on clunky interior monologue – but I liked them better when I realised it was meant to be a deliberate slow burn towards a specific goal. It’s a slow transition but it’s worth the wait: it comes together, finally, in Ashes of Honor, the sixth book in the series, and the best from where I’m sitting. Oh, Toby! I love her: she’s a hero for our age. Her liege lord, Sylvester Torquill, was a fairy tale hero for an earlier age, taking a sword upon the battlefields; Toby is one for now, taking her squashed VW Bug onto the mean, no-parking streets of San Francisco, and saving it from all manner of things while also doing laundry and dating and spending a lot of time at Starbucks. And as Sylvester mentored Toby, she does the same for her own squire, Quentin, which I love. Oh, I love Toby! Even after her arc of learning to love and be loved, she’s still what [personal profile] thefourthvine calls a space toaster. She’s impulsive and ridiculous and takes herself far too seriously. She’s flawed and passionate and, for certain values, human.

The books are not perfect, by any means. They take a while to get going, several of them are weirdly-paced, and sometimes I wonder how Toby is not in therapy right now and forever more. (And on that note, I wonder what, if anything, the books are trying to say about mental illness. People don’t have mental illness in these stories, they go mad. And while “mad” isn’t necessarily correlated with evil – Sylvester has a dark time or two, even – I’m not sure it works even so. Toby drives her car, uses her cellphone, goes to her friends’ children’s birthday parties. There might be faerie folk abroad, but this is the modern world: I am surprised by madness without therapy, madness without medication, especially when Toby eats Tylenol like candy.) Similarly, I’m not very sure about what’s being done with all the talk of blood. The faerie characters in the novels are either pureblooded, with no human parentage, or changelings, with some percentage human. Without spoiling the plot too much, the balance of Toby’s changeling blood changes over time and has major plot consequences; of the other characters, it’s often the first thing we learn about them. It’s not like, for example, in Harry Potter’s magical worldbuilding, where magical ability is linked with blood but it isn’t all important: here, it is all important. I don’t believe that this is a metaphor for race – there are non-white faerie characters, for one thing – but I wish the novels engaged more closely with the risk of it.

But! Taken as a whole, the books are lovely. Warm and moreish like popcorn, and full of fun and memorable characters. (Some of my favourites other than Toby, in no particular order: Sylvester, the brave man with a sword; Etienne, the brave man with a stick up his arse, and a sword; Quentin, brave with a sword, really likes eating, often exactly what Toby needs; the Luidaeg, the queer sea witch who’s getting less and less good at pretending she’s chaotic evil; May, the indestructible death omen with a taste for crap TV). Just lovely.
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