By Seanan McGuire
Rosemary and Rue…isn’t terrible. It is one of those books that is perfectly serviceable, but also demonstrates how difficult writing really is. I joke about my fantasy ‘trash’ books, but the truth is that my favorite authors manage to create empathetic characters in a relatable world, even when that world is so crawling with vampires, werewolves and fairies that it bears very little resemblance to the real world. They make it seem so effortless and natural that I can laugh off the books as ‘trash,’ until a book like Rosemary and Rue reminds me how much skill really goes into writing fantasy by showing me the pitfalls that other authors have avoided.
In case I haven’t damned it enough with the faintest of praise, Seanan McGuire writes like I would, constantly having to remind the reader (and possibly herself) of the perimeters of the supernatural elements of her world, that amateur error of telling (over and over) instead of showing. Unfortunately, even the telling often contradicted itself, to the point where I seldom fully understood what was going on in the plot. Some examples after the spoiler cut:
- Protagonist October Daye* is a half-fairy private detective living as human in the mundane world. After a case goes horribly awry in the prologue, she abandons the world of fairy altogether, retreating into her own tortured psyche. (At this point, I’m lapping it up with a spoon—I love a withdrawn and tortured private eye!) Unfortunately, in chapter 3, she is magically constrained to solve the murder of her frenemy, Evening Winterrose**, though I don’t understand the basis for either the friendship or the enmity.
- Toby Daye needs to reach out to old fairy connections for assistance in her investigation. She can’t turn to her liege lord (because she just can’t?), so she has no other choice than to turn to an old protector and lover she had left long ago. Now, Devin is introduced in a way that I interpreted as the fairy equivalent of a pimp that preys on underage runaways, who did just that to Toby. So, imagine my surprise when she meets with him, and he is friendly, sympathetic, and even sort of vulnerable, and she is wistful for what they had together. I spent a lot of time with this book thinking I was just reading it wrong.
- Our detective, so talented that she breaks through the halfling glass ceiling and is knighted by the reluctant monarch (all before the beginning of this book), mostly bumbles around while clues just fall into her lap. If you think I’m exaggerating, Evening Winterrose arranges for her magical key to be delivered to Toby after her death; the key opens all doors and drawers that are locked, becomes a flashlight when she can’t see in the dark, and even works as a dowsing rod (her words, not mine) to point out clues.
- Actual quote from the book: “One way or another, I was going to have to trust somebody, and when it comes to finding someone you can trust with something no one can know exists, you always turn to the ones you hate.” (huh?)
- This one is more general to books about fairies as a whole: the classic, original fairy tales emphasize that fairies will trick you into very unfavorable bargains, with the moral that you should be extra careful about the bargains you enter. Modern fairy tales seem to take the opposite interpretation—that it leaves you no choice but to enter into completely open-ended agreements. I threw down a previous book in disgust because the heroine signed a contract to be a fairy’s servant, and only later realized the contract didn’t stipulate an end date. In Rosemary and Rue, Toby makes an agreement with the aforementioned Devin, where he warns her it will cost her, and she later explains to another character that she is concerned about what she will end up having to pay Devin. Uh…this isn’t even fairy-level trickery! A human judge would have an aneurism over someone stupid enough to sign these contracts.
There were plenty of scenes that I enjoyed; the human parts were good! The first-person narrative describing her human life was relatable, sympathetic, and often wryly funny. It’s the fairy side that really fell apart and unfortunately became the most dominant part. Here’s the harshest criticism, though: I never had trouble putting it down at night in order to go to bed. Toby would be crouched in a shadowy alley and suddenly a silhouetted figure looms at the alley opening, and I would decide this was as good a place as any to put the book down to go to bed. On the flip side, several times I thought about giving up on the book altogether, but I couldn’t quite bring myself to do that, either. Even with all of the very problematic elements, I still wanted to know what happened next.
*I have a pet peeve about fantasy books and I will negatively judge them almost exclusively on it: I want the characters to have real names, or at least names that sound like they could be names that I had just never heard before. No nouns, proper or otherwise. I hate nouns for names (oddly, it actually doesn’t bother me that much in real life—name your kid Apple for all I care—just in books). October Daye gets a rare pass on this issue because she explains that the name was what her flaky fairy mom considered a reasonable human name and it has caused her embarrassment and irritation ever since. She also goes by Toby as much as possible (with the exception of her name tag at the minimum wage job where she’s hiding out, where I would assume they don’t actually care what her legal name is at all, again with the logistical issues).
**Evening Winterrose does not get such a pass. Mainly because in addition to it being her name, it is also almost exclusively her personality. She is cold and formal (though also wild?), her magic smells of roses, she uses ‘rose goblins’ for messengers, and has the aforementioned magical key that is covered in tangled metal rose vines.