Fairy Tales in the Streets: October Daye for the Hugo

This year’s Hugo ballot saw a brand new and somewhat experimental category: Best Series. Many were nominated, and the final tallies offered nominees from all corners of the science fiction and fantasy umbrella. One nominee in particular made my heart sing: the October Daye Books by Seanan McGuire.

If you aren’t familiar with the series, this is how McGuire herself describes the series on her blog:

The first in the series is Rosemary and Rue, an urban fantasy/murder mystery that’s probably best described as “fairy tale noir.” Think Fables meets Jim Butcher and you’ll be in the right zip code, if not exactly the right neighborhood.

Fairy tale noir? thought 2010 me (which is when I first heard of the book). Sign me up!

Mostly mild spoilers, nothing that isn’t ruined by reading the back of a book, however a key scene from the third book is described in detail. Read on with care.

I read the first and second volume back to back in the spring of that year, shortly after the second book in the series, A Local Habitation had been published. I loved Rosemary and Rue; I have mixed feelings about A Local Habitation. When volume three, An Artificial Night appeared in the fall of 2010, I decided to give it a try. It sucked me in entirely and I’ve been hooked ever since.

This series, which is ongoing, contains such a width and breadth of folkloric knowledge that it takes your breath away when you consider it. If you’ve ever read any of McGuire’s work as Mira Grant, you know that she does her research. This holds true for her fantasy fiction as well: she was a dual major in Folklore and Herpetology at UC Berkley. This made things a little disconcerting for me when I first began reading McGuire’s work. Almost all previous encounters I had with the fae in fiction prior to this series were strictly focused on Irish mythology. McGuire, having studied folklore from all over the world, incorporated these vast and varied races and species into her fiction. It was a lot to take in at first, but it is something that I have come to really appreciate about the series. McGuire has mirrored reality in her fantasy fiction. Look, the work insists. It’s a big world, and there are a lot of different types of people in it. They all have their own fairy tales. Look at how different but how similar everyone is. It’s beautiful and it makes things relatable. This also gives McGuire such a big sandbox to play in. There are races and types of fae that we haven’t truly met yet, ten books in. In addition to the land fae, water, air, and fire realms all exist with their own accompanying people and fauna. We’ve encountered the water fae, but the air and fire realms are as yet unexplored within the series.

Diversity abounds here. In addition to the numerous races and species of fae people and creatures, gender and sexuality issues are casually addressed as well. It is nothing for the fae to have lovers of both genders throughout their immortal existence. McGuire addressed this in her blog back in March of 2012. She said

…in my Faerie, in Toby’s Faerie, as far as I’m concerned, almost everyone immortal is also bisexual. People who are purely straight or purely gay are almost entirely changelings, and young changelings, at that. Out of the entire current cast, the only one I can point to and say “Yup, totally straight” is Toby, who was raised in the mortal 1950s, and never really considered girls as an option. Everyone else is bi. Yes, him. Yes, him, too. Yes, her. I’m not sure it counts in Lily’s case, since she’s a body of water that enjoys looking like a person, but she doesn’t care about the gender of her meat-based lovers. So yes, even her.

The entire post is worth reading and addresses the urgent need for positive representation in fiction. By pulling from so many different traditions and creating such a vast, diverse cast, McGuire has made this series one that can truly be for everyone who wishes to tumble down this wonderful rabbit hole of a world.

I must highlight one of the other ways that McGuire’s folkloric knowledge comes into play within the series. The old fairy and folktales, in Toby’s Faerie, are mostly true. One scene that gave me actual chills happens in book three, An Artificial Night. Toby is kidnapped by Blind Michael, one of Faerie’s Firstborn. Blind Michael leads the Wild Hunt and is not shy about kidnapping children (both mortal and fae) to add to his followers. Blind Michael intends to make Toby his new wife. However, in a gorgeous scene that is straight out of the Scottish ballad, “Tam Lin”, Toby is pulled from her horse as the Hunt rides by. As her friends and loved ones endure the transformations that happen when one is attempting to rescue a person from the Hunt, another character (the Sea Witch who sets the stage for this entire rescue to take place) recites lines from the ballad for the benefit of those who may not know what’s coming. It’s smoothly integrated and flows with the action perfectly. Following the ballad’s lines, Toby is transformed into a swan, a snake, a lion, and a flaming sword. She is, of course, rescued and survives the night. This isn’t the only appearance of such things. The story about Snow White, and how she died/was sleeping, and then came back to life was apparently based upon another figure in McGuire’s series (who I will not divulge for the sake of really big spoilers). The old stories wind their way through this series in both subtle and obvious ways. It’s delightful to find these references.

So what else makes it Hugo worthy?

A number of things! To begin with, October, our heroine, differs from the standard urban fantasy heroine in many ways. She’s not a sexy twenty-something who goes about in leather pants. Different experiences inform her life and the decisions that she makes. She’s a mother and a knight (and demands to be referred to as Sir Daye, rather than Lady, when such things become necessary) who has been declared a Hero of the Realm by the queen. Additionally, Toby has female friends that she talks to and maintains relationships with. This is something that isn’t seen nearly often enough. The fact that she has friends, period, not only gives her an advantage and makes her relatable, but shows the tremendous growth that Toby has experienced through her series. When we begin in Rosemary and Rue, Toby is in a kind of self-induced exile. She begrudgingly asks for assistance and things take off from there. Over the course of the next nine books (and the many short stories), we have watched Toby learn to trust and expand her network of allies. She has created a family of her own and she acknowledges that she is often not the biggest badass in the room.

Badass or not, Toby is a Hero, with all of the burdens that this entails. Once Toby fully returns to Faerie, after attempting to ignore it in the aftermath of a disastrous spell that took her away from her life for years, she serves as a knight in the service of the Duke of Shadowed Hills, Sylvester Torquill. Even before the queen draws Toby into service for her entire kingdom, Toby has followed the hero’s journey several times. I would suggest that each book is another trip for our heroine as she leaves the familiar and plunges herself into the strangeness that is Faerie (and sometimes the human world as well). She is accompanied by helpers and has mentors who assist her along the way. The abyss inserts itself into her life on multiple occasions and in various forms. At the end of each journey, she returns home, sometimes transformed, and sometimes with newly gifted abilities and talents. She pays for these gifts, often with her own blood.

Another aspect that delights me: things CHANGE in this universe. People evolve and grow, or devolve and become harsh, just as in life. Old friends part ways or become enemies, new friends become close allies or lovers. Not everyone that we meet in the beginning remains in the same role in Toby’s life. Not everyone lives. McGuire isn’t afraid to kill off characters. Fortunately, she’s also happy to introduce new players to the cast. Each new book gives some sort of change, positive or otherwise, to Toby and her world.

The most recent offering in the series, Once Broken Faith,  is a great representation of the series as a whole. Faith

Politics have never been October “Toby” Daye’s strong suit. When she traveled to the Kingdom of Silences to prevent them from going to war with her home, the Kingdom of the Mists, she wasn’t expecting to return with a cure for elf-shot and a whole new set of political headaches.

Now the events she unwittingly set in motion could change the balance of modern Faerie forever, and she has been ordered to appear before a historic convocation of monarchs, hosted by Queen Windermere in the Mists and overseen by the High King and Queen themselves.

Naturally, things have barely gotten underway when the first dead body shows up. As the only changeling in attendance, Toby is already the target of suspicion and hostility. Now she needs to find a killer before they can strike again—and with the doors locked to keep the guilty from escaping, no one is safe.

As danger draws ever closer to her allies and the people she loves best, Toby will have to race against time to prevent the total political destabilization of the West Coast and to get the convocation back on track…and if she fails, the cure for elf-shot may be buried forever, along with the victims she was too slow to save.

Because there are worse fates than sleeping for a hundred years.

This particular entry doesn’t stand out from the others in any special way. It’s indicative of the series as a whole in the relationships that are represented, the complicated political dance that Toby must adhere to, and in Toby’s signature rule-breaking style of fixing the problem. This is not to say that the book isn’t well written and a great read, because it is both of those things. As with previous issues such as the one faced in this story, huge ramifications will come from the events that take place in Once Broken Faith. If the cure for elf-shot is approved, dozens of sleeping characters will be revived. Unfortunately, not all of them are people that Toby can call friend or even ally. Actions have consequences, even if the readers don’t see these consequences for two or more books down the line.

Whether or not you agree with me, I hope that you will consider giving this series a chance. Stick with it, even if you get bogged down early on. By the third volume, the story has found its voice and direction, and I’ve loved every installment since. You have a dragon’s hoard of wonders waiting for you. Look past your bias towards something that gets filed under “urban fantasy” and consider the universal themes at work here. You will not be disappointed.

Should It Win?

I believe it should. It’s a fun, innovative, highly readable series. This is not at all intended to discount the other nominees. As I mentioned before, these books truly have something for everyone. McGuire has deftly produced a hugely plotted series with plenty of action and amazing characters. She has also managed to juggle each self-contained story while keeping the bigger, overarching plot firmly in sight. Too many long series become either bogged down with the big, long dramatic plotline or transforming into a monster-of-the-week special. This series does neither at any point. The intricacies that weave this tale together are incredible, and I wish I could say more without spoilers. Voting may have ended, but I hope you’ll join me in rooting for McGuire and Toby to take home the Hugo at this year’s ceremony in Helsinki.

8 Comments

  • Weasel of Doom August 1, 2017 at 11:58 am

    I hope it wins! I love, love, love this series.

    Reply
    • Casey Price August 1, 2017 at 1:38 pm

      Me too!!❤️❤️❤️

      Reply
  • Shara White August 1, 2017 at 12:57 pm

    Yeah, this series has my heart, and my vote. I’d love to see urban fantasy win. On the outside, it seems so typical of the genre, but it’s so much more than that, and I think winning would show readers not familiar with the series that it’s worth giving the series a second look. There’s politics and warring kingdoms and epic love stories and sacrifices…. all the things you find in epic fantasy. It’s just set in our day and time.

    Don’t get me wrong: I love the Expanse, but I can see it winning for an individual volume. And the Vorkosigan Saga HAS won for individual volumes, multiple times. I’ve only read the first installments of The Craft Sequence (awesome, have the rest of the series) and Rivers of London (enjoyed it well enough, but not enough to continue), so I can’t speak to those, and I got a few pages into Temeraire before losing interest and setting aside.

    Rooting for October, all the way.

    Reply
    • Casey Price August 1, 2017 at 1:39 pm

      We should have flags to wave in support.

      Reply
    • Lane Robins August 2, 2017 at 9:33 pm

      I feel like we’re pretty much spoiled for choice this year. None of them are “bad”. None of them! I would love to see urban fantasy win something, anything, for once! McGuire’s just so damned creative.

      Reply
      • Casey Price August 2, 2017 at 9:43 pm

        She is! This series has everything that traditional fantasy has: quests, political intrigues, fancy dress balls, feasts, monsters, shadowy magicians who know more than they ought to, AND rose goblins! (which no, are not traditional fantasy hallmarks. BUT THEY SHOULD BE.)

        Reply
  • Lane Robins August 2, 2017 at 9:31 pm

    I have GOT to catch up with this series. I stopped just before One Salt Sea. I’m not sure why. I think it coincided with the local bookstore closing.

    Reply
    • Casey Price August 2, 2017 at 9:41 pm

      Yes you must! One Salt Sea is an excellent volume. There are MERMAIDS and you get to meet one of my FAVORITE CHARACTERS EVER (in almost all of fiction-dom).

      Reply

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