Series Review – October Daye by Seanan McGuire

October Daye is an urban fantasy series starring a PI who bridges the gap between fairy and humans.  On its face, there is nothing to distinguish it from any of the other long running series like Dresden/The Hollows (PI),1 True Blood/Mary Gentry (fairies), etc, except it is a perennial best series nominee for the Hugos.  Indeed, I’ve read and briefly reviewed the October Daye series not once, but twice before, putting them in the middle of my Hugo Series ballot in both 2017 and 2019.2  After the last round I praised them as “weapons grade escapism”, but given I enjoyed them enough this year to reread the series, they deserve a bit more than that.3  In particular, it misses what is the key strength of the series – a family of characters that I want to hang out with each instalment, the lexical equivalent of a great sitcom or procedural.

Certainly, Rosemary and Rue, the first book in the series, doesn’t augur greatness.  There is some fairly rough writing, particularly when it comes to exposition of past events, but it makes up for it with some genuinely interesting and solid world building, that feels coherent and like it could exist at the edges of our world.  October is an interesting contrast to the standard hyper skilled protagonist because she is often more determined and well intentioned than actually competent, and there are some promising supporting cast members.  It also stands out is in how it treats the darker aspects of setting: while a lot of urban fantasy is grounded in monsters,4 the violence is usually of a fantastic nature, while in Rosemary and Rue, the focus on addiction and homelessness grounds it, even if the overall tone of the book is quite light.  Perhaps unsurprisingly, these elements carry through the whole series for good and ill.

For example, if I had to single out the one thing in the entire series that most annoys me, it is McGuire’s need in every novel, in every story no matter how short, to treat the reader as if this is the only October Daye book they are ever going to read.  The exposition of past events that plagued Rosemary and Rue now covers the events of previous books.  In binging the series we get introduced over and over again to the cast, to the world, to the rules, even the geography of greater San Fran.  It often saps the narrative urgency out of the opening of the books, and regularly undermines key moments as there is a pause in the action to explain who the ‘new’ character is.  It is also, I suspect, part of the reason that this series is so successful – a concession to commerce at the expense of art.  If you pick up any October Daye book, you will be able to jump right in and keep up, with no boring title scroll at the beginning, and having enjoyed it, any one you can pick up after will be equally accessible.

Similarly, the already solid world is built upon through the series, with excursions to the Summerlands, various Knowles, neighbouring kingdoms, and even the deep fairy providing not only a bigger world, but a look at the diverse fictional society that populates it.  We get a view of the different races, and rather than some fairy tale kingdom, we see a world with deep prejudices, unfair rules, and strange traditions, that contains heroes, villains, and most importantly regular ‘people’.  The development of the setting is not only outwardly focused; “everything in Fairy has a purpose”, and as October becomes more emmeshed in the world, we learn more about her skills and abilities and how they fit into fairy.  Many of the seeds for this are planted in the early books to be paid off later, and McGuire does a masterful job of answering questions raised in the early books with regards to October’s abilities.

This feeds into the narrative spine of the October Daye book as a cohesive series, rather than a series of stand alone novels; October is deeply embedded in her local fairy world, has her own continuing narrative through the novels, and through her ‘purpose’ is enmeshed in larger machinations in the world.  This balancing of the stories in individual books against the big picture provides devoted readers something to counter the endless recapping, and as the books go on, the edges between the local and global plots intertwine.  Unfortunately, this has become a bit of a frustration in the last couple of novels, as the meta plot spins its wheels in favour of October’s character development.5

None of this however represents the great strength of the series: the sense of found family.  As someone abandoned by her mother, bridging worlds, and somewhat displaced in time, October has to build her own family over the course of the series, and the work done here by McGuire is outstanding.  When we first meet October she already has the makings of a family with a surrogate father in Sylvester and a friend in Danny who already feels more like a cousin.  Almost every book in the series adds to this cast, from the close family members such as Quentin her squire, May and Jazz, and Tybalt, through her nieces, friends, enemies, and the Luidaeg.  They banter, fight, fall out with each other, suffer losses and triumphs, and most importantly grow together.  Each relationship is unique, but shaded by the others: Sylvester loves October but his wife resents her, Jazz and May are a couple on different cycles to the rest of them, Tybalt is old in years but young at heart, and Quentin is still growing up.  This sense of family and community makes me want to hang out with the cast in every installment, and serves to elevate the strongest elements of the series and paper over the weakest. Indeed the focus on cast and the tone of the series make the October Daye novels feel like a tv procedural, where the draw is hanging out with the characters, and the ups and downs of the plot are less important.6

All this is topped off by the Luidaeg, the sea witch, who manages to be a standout character in a cast of strong characters.  She manages to be a cohesive character while being the monster you scare your kids with, a young woman in love, a loving but reserved aunt, and the person who gets things done when nobody else can.  Textured, powerful, and tragic, she is a key element of the novels, and a feature of the best of the short fiction.  As important as October is, the Luidaeg anchors the series tone as one containing both wonder and menace in equal measures.

Ultimately, the joy of the October Daye books are in the relationships.  In rereading the series I found myself enjoying the individual books far more than before as I enjoy spending time with the characters rather than worrying about the plot (not to knock the plot, particularly the overarching plot, but it is not the main draw).  This is a series for someone who wants to invest in a family and hang out, and with a deliberately low barrier for entry, it’s fairly easy to take a punt on.

I have sometimes recommended skipping the first two books and starting with An Artificial Night, however I’d like to revise this a bit.  If you feel that this is the sort of thing you would like, jump feet first in at the beginning and plow through, however if you want to dip your toe in and try a book, read An Artificial Night, and if you like it you can then go back to Rosemary and Rue and work your way through in order.

 

 

  1. Technically bounty hunter, but seriously.
  2. 4th of 6 both years.
  3. Except for the first two books, some exclusive short stories, and the latest novel, which hasn’t been released as an ebook in Aus/NZ as far as I can work out.
  4. Vampires, Werewolves, etc.
  5. What a problem to have – spending two much time on character at the expense of plot, but I digress, I’m hoping from the title that The Unkindest Tide will fix this.
  6. More Castle or the X-Files than Supernatural.

Leave a Reply